The sounds of the siren indicating different times and periods at a boarding school near where I stay has become part and parcel of our daily lives. As the siren wails at 5 a.m. on weekdays, it automatically tells us that it is time to wake up and prepare to go to work. So, can the other daily routines be synchronised to the different sounds of the siren? But for more than six months this year, there was an eerie silence in the neighbourhood because, like other schools, the school was closed due to the ravaging Covid-19 pandemic.
There were no learners and teachers, so there was no need for the siren to sound. The deafening silence was so conspicuous in the neighbourhood that one could feel it through day and night. But the soothing and therapeutic sounds of the siren came back a few weeks ago with the return of face-to-face learning, much our delight.
Because the coronavirus continues to traumatise people, the return to face-to-face learning brought with it fears and anxieties among stakeholders in the education sector. Acting responsibly, the government adopted a phase-in approach to the return to face-to-face learning, a process that was completed a few weeks ago.
The government had to adopt this approach to test the waters and avoid the consequences of reopening schools on a large scale. The information provided from the staggered reopening of schools would inform responsible authorities on what would obtain if schools were allowed to operate on a full scale. Obviously, some fears allowing all learners to go to school was most likely going to increase the cases of coronavirus.
Teachers’ unions did not hide their fears. They came out in the open condemning the first attempt to allow school children and teachers to go to school at the same time. The unions preferred a delay by a further week. They feared that teachers and learners would be more exposed to the coronavirus in the school environment.
Purposefully, the unions and the government showed maturity and responsibility by coming to a compromise so that neither could blame the other if things went wrong. Such was the outcome of a win-in dialogue that put the national interest at the centre, thereby avoiding a stalemate in the face-to-face learning issue.
To show that there were still some fears about the effect of the coronavirus, going back to school was not mandatory. Parents were given room to make the final decision as to whether their children had to resume face-to-face classes or not. Some parents feared for the safety of their children and opted for home schooling.
Other parents, the majority of them, as was testified by the large numbers of learners that turned up at schools, decided to send their children back to school. This is not to imply that the latter did not care about their children. Torn between the challenges of home-schooling and face-to-face classes, they opted for the latter amid fears and anxieties - no one was sure for certain what was going to happen to their children at school, but they gambled and followed the bandwagon as they witnessed other parents sending their children to school. This explains why many parents hesitated at the beginning, only to take their children to school upon the assurance of friends and other parents whose children were already attending school. Another reason that compelled parents to send their children to school was the fear that the learners would repeat grades next year if they did not join others at the time face-to-face learning was resumed. So, in most cases, parents had to make hard choices amid fears that their children were likely to contract the coronavirus.
Also, as I witnessed, many learners had fear and anxieties written on their faces as they innocently attended lessons in their classrooms. Most learners looked distraught and disoriented especially in the first weeks of normal classes. With masks, shields, sanitizers, self-contained desks and other protocols round them; learners are constantly reminded of the risk of contracting the deadly virus. It has been suggested that there is a need for psychologists to counsel most of the learners due to the trauma caused by the coronavirus. Equally, teachers face the same fate; they too are in a state of uncertainty as they are also susceptible to the coronavirus.
Though there existed genuine fears and anxieties, the return to face-to-face learning brought with it some prospects. Many children who did not learn during the various stages of the lockdown were able to go to school. Most of these children were in government schools in the rural and peri-urban schools where they could not access e-learning. Even many learners in urban areas could not access e-learning due to various reasons ranging from the question of affordability to internet connectivity. Some experts have argued that Africa at large is not yet ready for e-learning taking into account the huge resources that are needed to effectively reach out to every learner.
These experts have also pooh-poohed the much-hyped fourth and fifth industrial revolutions in Africa, arguing that the continent is not ready for successful digital revolutions. The huge challenges that learners and higher education students faced with online learning support the view that most of our schools and institutions are not ready to mount successful online programmes. This is not of course because of their design.
Therefore, the return to face-to-face learning was a blessing to the disadvantaged learners and parents despite the fears and anxieties associated with it. While not downplaying the advance in technology that made some e-learning and teaching possible to some schools during the lockdown in Namibia, it should be pointed out bluntly that some schools and institutions do not have the capacity for effective e-learning.
As far as I see it, the fears and anxieties caused by the coronavirus will still be with us for a long time. Therefore, a return to face-to-face schooling must be treated with caution.