The government has set September as a proposed month within which public schools can resume, after many months of closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, a disclaimer from the Prime Minister while appearing before parliament was that the reopening will only be guided by science.
The decision to halt schools was taken by the government on March 14 after confirming the country’s first Covid-19 case. The decision was in a bid to curb further spread of the pandemic.
On May 1, a cabinet meeting resolved that schools shall not reopen before September this year. Due to health measures deployed by the Ministry of Health, there are nearly 3.6 million students who are not in school with experts arguing that prolonged closure of schools could threaten gains made in the education sector.
School closures generally disrupt children’s learning and pose the risk of higher dropout rates for the most vulnerable, including girls and children from poor households, who are less likely to go back to school.
Teachers may be forced to leave the profession in search of other jobs, something that has already happened in some private schools that have been affected by the global epidemic of the Novel Coronavirus.
Petter Brodin, an Associate Professor of Immunology at the Sweden-based Karolinska Institutet says that fundamentally, it is very important to understand that all restrictions to reduce transmission comes with a price.
“Closing schools leads to massive negative consequences both for children and parents, loss of social context, educational loss, and parents unable to work,” he says.
Yet, as the government prepares to allow schools to reopen, there are concerns that the country that is still grappling with the pandemic, could find itself struggling to make the extra investment in dealing with the virus.
At worst, this is because most schools in the country are overcrowded, which could pose high risks of transmission of the virus to students and teachers or even parents.
Last week, for instance, the government of South Africa announced that public schools will close again for a month to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus as the country grapples with surging infections.
Rising infections have caused concern among teaching staff, with unions calling on the government to revoke its decision to reopen schools for certain grades in June.
“Cabinet has decided today that all public schools should take a break for the next four weeks,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Thursday during an address to the nation, adding that the academic year that is due to end in December would be extended.
Last week, Members of Parliament also expressed concern over schools reopening in September as Prime Minister Edouard Ngirente addressed them on measures put in place by the government to contain the outbreak.
The question is now whether September is the right time for schools to resume.
Brodin suggests that every country has to figure out what is driving transmission in its specific context.
In Sweden, the transmission has mainly happened within families and at workplaces.
“Schools have been open throughout the pandemic as normal but with the exception that older kids (high school and University) have had distance learning programmes,” he notes.
“This is because the cost of keeping schools closed was deemed too high here. I think this was very good and we’ve not had more numbers of children or teachers with severe than Covid-19 as compared to other countries,” he adds.
Brodin insists that it has been extremely valuable to retain kids in schools, saying that it has made Sweden’s strategy much more sustainable than the lock-down of many other countries.
Edward Kabare, a headteacher at Nyagatare Secondary School in the Eastern Province thinks maintaining physical distancing measures for students will be the hardest task.
“Our smallest classroom has 40 students, but even then I don’t think you can get a one-metre distance. Let’s imagine you are able to do that, how do you tell students to keep physical distancing after school?” he says.
He doubts whether social distancing will particularly be possible for boarding schools like his, especially in accommodation facilities.
“For facemasks, it will be hard to maintain them for kids. If everyone was mature at least it would be easier to see that happening,” he notes.
The new normal
Based on the best medical advice available, schools will be asked to implement public health protocols to keep students and staff safe when they return to school in September.
It is likely that even when schools finally reopen, a school will never look entirely the same before the world witnessed the outbreak. Experts suggest that water and hygiene facilities will be the norm.
Physical distancing measures and the wearing of facemasks are highly recommended, and learning in shifts will be the new normal for most schools.
In Rwanda, the Government started implementing a plan last month that will see 22,505 classrooms completed in all 30 districts of the country by September this year.
The schools will help curb overcrowding and long distances travelled by students going to and returning from schools, according to the Ministry of Education.
According to Salafina Flavia, the Information, Education and Communication Specialist at the Ministry, there is a plan to conduct an awareness campaign at schools that will encourage students to respect health safety measures.
“There has been a lot of awareness from the Ministry of Health, which is guiding our decisions. We are planning the same campaign when schools reopen,” she says.