Human rights roundup
Covid-19 and the right to education
The Southern Africa Human Rights Roundup is a weekly column aimed at highlighting important human rights news in Southern Africa. It integrates efforts of human rights defenders and facilitates evidence-based engagement with key stakeholders, and institutions on the human rights situation across the region. The weekly roundup is a collaboration between the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network and Maverick Citizen.
Schoolchildren, university and tertiary education students have been at home for almost two months following the outbreak of Covid-19.
The requirement to observe social distancing as part of efforts to curb the spread of the virus resulted in school closures and bans on large gatherings across southern Africa.
While the spread of Covid-19 has slowed down, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and medical scientists say the peak is yet to come. On 17 April, the WHO warned that Africa could be the next epicentre of the virus. In the WHO’s best-case scenario, where governments introduce intense social distancing, once a threshold of 0.2 deaths per 100,000 people per week is reached, Africa would see 122 million infections, 2.3 million hospitalisations and 300,000 deaths.
On 7 May, a study by the WHO Regional Office for Africa estimated that up to 190,000 people could die in the first year of the pandemic if containment measures fail. This has led to a serious debate on reopening schools, colleges and universities.
Meanwhile, schools, especially private schools, continue charging fees, and parents have become the teachers. Even the homeschooling introduced is mainly virtual and digital heavy. Virtual education works when students and parents have access to the internet. This requirement precludes the poor showing that the digital divide separates the children of the wealthy from those of the majority poor when virtual learning is practised.
Home and virtual learning has also put a huge burden on parents, particularly women and single parents, who must share time, homes, computers, televisions and generally family chores with teaching children.
The universally recognised right to education, which in 2019 was elaborated in the Abidjan Principles on the human rights obligations of states to provide public education and to regulate private involvement in education, has therefore become an area of severe contestation in Southern Africa.
On 30 April, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Bank issued guidelines on the safe reopening of schools amidst ongoing closures affecting nearly 1.3 billion students worldwide. The guidelines provide a framework that informs decision-making regarding school reopening, support national preparations and guide the implementation process.
Education or health? The schools reopening debate
Over the last three weeks, most countries in the region have gradually eased lockdown restrictions. While gatherings remain banned, indications point to a systemic reopening of schools starting from 1 June in Angola, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Eswatini, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. But in some countries such as Malawi, schools remain closed until further notice.
Angola, which recently moved to a “State of National Disaster” from a “State of Emergency”, is reopening schools.
On 25 May, Angolan government officials announced that high schools, tertiary institutions and universities would reopen on 13 July while primary schools will be reopened on 27 July in line with the rules of operation of public and private services that took effect as of 26 May. Restarting the functioning of preschools will be determined at a later stage and will be subject to its own regulations.
The Minister of State and of the Civil House, Adão de Almeida, laid out some of the requirements for reopening schools, including maintenance of physical distance, building and hand hygiene, the use of face masks and reduction of libraries, laboratories and computer rooms’ maximum capacity by 50%.
Botswana ended its lockdown on 20 May, allowing all businesses and schools to reopen under strict conditions such as body temperature checks, regular disinfection, reduced class sizes and the wearing of masks.
The country will begin reopening schools in stages from 2 June for final-year students while others would resume 2-3 weeks later and pre-primary classes on 4 August.
According to Bridget John, permanent secretary for the Ministry of Basic Education, classes will start from Standard 7, Form 3 and Form 5 and primary, junior and senior secondary schools respectively. Tertiary institutions will open in two phases from June starting with teaching, technical colleges and institutes of health sciences and then universities.
Parents and caregivers, however, expressed concern during a press briefing held on 25 May by the ministries of Basic and Tertiary Education on readiness.
“This is not a wise decision, it is not safe out there. Kids are naive and careless, hence they need to stay at home where it is safe especially considering that there is still no vaccine or cure for the disease. We have nothing to lose by these kids staying home but we stand to risk a lot if they don’t,” read one comment.
When the announcement to reopen schools was made, the Covid-19 Task Force Coordinator, Dr Kereng Masupu, indicated that the authorities would continue monitoring the disease patterns and reinstate lockdown measures in the event of a new spike in Covid-19 cases.
On 11 May, Africanews reported that authorities in the DRC were discussing plans to save the academic year. The Minister of Primary, Secondary and Literacy Education, Anatole Collinet Makosso stated that the government has not yet taken any decision on the matter but is working on the possibility as guided by health authorities. While the dates for reopening remain uncertain, DRC authorities have indicated that they will regulate the period during which national examinations will be organised.
The Students’ Union of Congo, however, raised concern that there will not be an equality of opportunity between candidates given that not all students have access to online lessons. Makosso dismissed this concern, arguing that a regulatory act is not influenced by media agitation or protests on the streets. He insisted that equality measures had been established and included handouts and online courses.
In Tanzania, preparations to reopen universities and colleges are underway. President John Magufuli ordered the reopening of all universities and other institutions of higher learning effective from 1 June. The development follows a declaration by the president that there had been a decline in Covid-19 cases in the country. Form 6 students who were preparing for their final examinations before the Covid-19 outbreak are also to resume their studies on 1 June. Primary and secondary schools will, however, remain closed.
Critics say Magufuli’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic is both irrational and dangerous. Zitto Kabwe, a member of Parliament who leads the opposition Alliance for Change and Transparency – Wazalendo party, said the declaration that the country is winning the battle against the pandemic and accordingly would be reopening schools and universities was made without any publication of official or verifiable statistics about the rate of infection and deaths, claiming that the last publication was made on 29 April.
The WHO and the international community have also criticised Tanzanian authorities for their casual approach in addressing the global pandemic.
Authorities in Eswatini are considering reopening schools on 1 July amid the partial lockdown. According to the Eswatini Observer, a draft framework by the Ministry of Education and Training proposes an approach which could see schools reopening in phases, giving preference to completing classes, reopening schools that have low enrolments, using a shift system and key stakeholder engagement with regional education officers, teachers, learners, parents, civil society and development partners.
Teachers, under the banner of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT) issued 15 conditions that must be met prior to the opening of schools. These include ensuring that all the 970 schools (primary and secondary), and 30 tertiary institutions (both private and public) are extensively disinfected and provided with water tanks to ensure a constant supply of clean running water.
On 19 May, South Africa’s Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga announced that all public school teachers had to return to work on 25 May in preparation for the return of Grade 7 and Grade 12 pupils on 1 June, including public and private schools. She encouraged all schools to adhere to and observe the health and safety protocols that will be put in place, adding that other grades will follow in due course.
However, unions, parents and student organisations have joined forces to oppose the decision.
The National Association of Parents in School Governance, also acting on behalf of the Congress of South African Students, dismissed the development as an “irrational and arbitrary” move that puts pupils, teachers and families in danger of succumbing to Covid-19. The association’s president, Mahlomola Kekana, said it is unfortunate that the minister’s plan excludes those pupils that are taught under trees, in tents, dilapidated buildings or overcrowded schools.
The South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) also believes June is too early for schools to be able to meet all the preconditions laid out in the Covid-19 regulations.
The National Teachers’ Union, Suid-Afrikaanse Onderwysersunie (SAOU), the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (Fedsas), the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa and the National Alliance of Independent Schools Associations (Naisa) also expressed misgivings around the department’s plans and around provincial readiness.
Other stakeholders have resorted to litigation in their bid to force the government to reverse the decision. The Educators Union of South Africa (Eusa), is taking the government to court. Eusa accuses Motshekga of lying and misleading the public about supplying PPE and guaranteeing the safety of pupils and teachers. The union also argues that PPE alone will not guarantee the safety of those involved – this is only one out of 15 demands that have to be met before classes can resume.
Meanwhile, a teacher in Cape Town has reportedly tested positive for Covid-19 a week before schools reopen.
Plans to reopen schools in Zambia have been met with mixed reactions. In his 8 May national address, President Edgar Lungu said examination classes in primary and secondary schools would reopen on 1 June on condition that schools enforce all public health guidelines, regulations and certifications. He went further to direct health and education authorities to ensure that face masks, hand washing soaps and sanitisers are prioritised and provided at all schools.
The National Action for Quality Education in Zambia welcomed the decision but urged the government to provide PPE at all schools. The general secretary of the Zambia National Teachers Union reported that they were ready for the reopening of schools and encouraged parents to allow learners to attend class, adding that necessary measures had already been put in place to ensure a safe learning environment.
The Basic Education Teachers Union of Zambia said they are committed to working flat-out in all schools across the country to ascertain preparedness ahead of the reopening. However, the Zambia National Union of Teachers described the move as a bold decision that could backfire and result in schools becoming epicentres of Covid-19 if not managed well.
Similarly, authorities in Zimbabwe have received mixed reactions, with some stakeholders strongly opposing the idea of reopening schools and universities from 1 June as announced by the government.
On 23 May, the minister of primary and secondary education told The Sunday Mail that schools would resume classes in mid-June while universities would reopen on 1 June. He stated that 2020 exam classes would be prioritised and be opened in Phase 1 followed by 2021 exam classes, then Grades 3, 4, 5 and Forms 1 and 2. Phase 4 will consist of Grades 2 and 1 and lastly pre-primary classes.
The minister insisted that teachers would be screened and tested to ensure the safety of learners. Further, he stated that schools would be provided with thermometers for screening while learners would be allocated PPE.
Despite the government’s laid out plan, teachers’ unions are concerned that the decision may be premature considering that the months of June and July carry a high probability for infections of ordinary flu. The Zimbabwe Teachers Association (Zimta) has warned that if authorities go ahead with their plan, stakeholders may be headed for industrial conflict.
Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (Artuz) president, Obert Masaraure said the June examinations should only be written when conditions allow, stating that:
“There is no rush really. We do not want to lose lives, we should not force premature reopening of schools. Learners, teachers and everyone involved in the process should be tested before there is any activity at schools, be they examinations or lessons.”
Some parents believe it is still premature to reopen schools, while others seem to agree with the government, arguing that Covid-19 is not going anywhere anytime soon hence people ought to adapt to the new norm.
The Zimbabwe National Students’ Union (Zinasu) has issued a statement saying that while they acknowledge and agree with efforts to rescue and fulfil the 2020 academic year, tertiary and university students can only go back to campuses if the government can assure that institutions will adhere to WHO guidelines on preventing the spread of Covid-19. The union also indicated that end-of-semester examinations should not be a rushed formality but a proper process to prevent the majority of students from being unfairly condemned to failure.
Midlands State University (MSU) students have approached the High Court challenging the government’s decision to introduce e-learning in tertiary institutions during the national lockdown. Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) filed an urgent chamber application on behalf of the students, arguing that the majority of students are from poor backgrounds and can neither afford smart electronic gadgets nor the internet that is required to access online classes.
Unlike most countries, there seems to be consensus regarding the reopening of schools in Namibia.
Media reports suggest that some education stakeholders, including the Namibia National Teachers Union (Nantu) and Teachers Union of Namibia (TUN) have agreed among themselves that learners who are in critical grades and are expected to sit for external examinations like Grades 11 and 12 should resume classes by 3 June to allow them to complete their academic year. Former education minister Katrina Hanse-Himarwa also agrees.
The unions, which also agreed that other grades would resume between July and August, as the situation dictates, are now in the process of consulting school principals in the country’s 14 regions to discuss the best way forward that ensures health and safety will not be compromised.
The decision to shut down schools in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic was universally accepted, a very stark contrast to the raging debate on their reopening. Governments in southern Africa want schools reopened but parents, students, teachers and stakeholders do not seem to generally agree, as they are not satisfied that the conditions for reopening exist yet.
It can be discerned that there is a serious lack of mistrust between governments and the rest. As the debate rages, it is learners who are paying the highest cost, as their right to education has been seriously compromised. Governments and all stakeholders must be guided by medical advice and take all necessary precautions to ensure that reopening the sector does not put anyone at risk. DM/MC
Arnold Tsunga is a human rights lawyer, the director of the Africa Regional Programme of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and the technical and strategy adviser of the SAHRDN. Tatenda Mazarura is a woman human rights defender (WHRD), a professional rapporteur and an election expert. Mark Heywood is editor of Maverick Citizen.