Anurita Bains and Richard Banda
We know COVID-19 is a global health emergency. But the pandemic has also caused the largest disruption of schooling in history, where hundreds-of-millions children, especially the poorest, stand to lose the learning opportunities that could transform their lives. In Lesotho, children have been out of school since March this year. The combination of missed schooling, increased poverty and education budget cuts could negatively affect half a million Basotho children for the rest of their lives.
Countries around the world are grappling with whether or not to open schools, and how to open them safely in the context of COVID-19. We know the question of school re-opening is not as simple as setting a date and picking up from where things were left before lockdown in March. Decisions to re-open schools should be informed by a risk assessment that ensures both optimal education and health benefits for the country.
The path to reopening schools will therefore take planning, preparation and commitment. The world, and life in Lesotho has changed dramatically since then. But what we, as the heads of UNICEF and WHO, are calling for is that learning be prioritised so that Basotho children, whether in a school environment or at home, can continue to learn.
The reality is that before COVID-19, learning indicators were not very good in the country. According to the 2018 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey led by the Bureau of Statistics, less than half of children aged 7 to 14 have foundational reading skills in either English or Sesotho and only 15 per cent in the same age group are demonstrating foundational numeracy skills.
Whether you have access to school or can complete school depends a lot on poverty, geography and gender: Only 1 in 10 children from poor households in Lesotho are likely to complete secondary school compared to half of children from the wealthiest families. While 9 out of 10 children from Maseru are likely to access secondary education, it’s only 3 in 10 children for children from rural areas in the Highlands.
Across the country, about 40 per cent of children have access to pre-primary education, despite overwhelming evidence that starting school early helps build the foundations of learning and development which will help children succeed in school and in life.
We were already in a learning crisis. Now with COVID-19 these trends, affecting children, their families and their futures, are set to worsen. What can we do to make sure that this devastating health and socio-economic crisis does not also become an education emergency? There is no magic solution but there are things that we can do to make sure Basotho children are not disadvantaged.
First, we have to keep learning alive, even when schools are closed. When lockdown was initiated, the Government of Lesotho with the support of UNICEF and other partners worked to reach children through radio and TV programmes.
It was important for children to have some way to continue their curriculum but we know the radio and TV programmes were not enough. Only about half of children and adolescents have access to radio and only a third have access to TV, and those in remote areas or learners with disabilities could not benefit from these lessons. Radio and TV programmes need to be more regular, ideally daily, and supplemented with online learning and physical learning packs so children can take lesson plans and materials home.
There’s no substitution for being in school with a teacher and your peers, but we have to be creative, and actively try to keep learning alive.
Second, schools should be the first public spaces to reopen as soon as it is deemed safe to do so. We see other sectors such as businesses gradually reopening, and we call on government to apply the same agility and urgency to schools. The long-term impact of keeping schools closed risks great harm to children not just in terms of learning but their safety, health, nutrition and well-being.
We know many children have their only meal a day at school. The longer children are out of school, the greater their exposure to physical, emotional and sexual violence, exploitation and abuse. We have seen during other crisis, such as Ebola in West Africa, that the longer schools remain closed, the less likely children are to ever come back. For children who never come back to school, the consequences are massive.
They are at greater risk of lifelong poverty, having lower life expectancy and poorer health outcomes. The World Bank estimates that school closures could globally result in between $355 and $1 408 in yearly loss in earnings. That translates to over $25,000 in lifetime earnings losses per child.
We know that opening schools is not as easy as going back to the way things were before lockdown. We need to plan and prepare with COVID-19 in mind. We need to take into consideration the current and evolving understanding of COVID-19 transmission and its impact in children and put in place and maintain preventive and control measures accordingly.
For example, all schools need to have run water and soap so that children, teachers and school staff can practice good hygiene and hand washing, a key tool in the prevention of COVID-19. Learners need to be distanced at least one metre apart in the classroom and teachers, and children over the age of 2 years need to wear masks. The classrooms need to be well ventilated by opening windows.
Cleaning of the surfaces and toilets with water and soap need to be done thoroughly and daily as recommended by WHO. As we come to the end of winter, there may be options for outdoor classrooms, or staggered days where some children go to school in the morning and others in the afternoon.
What are some effective ways to make sure children, teachers and school workers are safe and children are learning? How can we learn from what other countries are doing and what the evidence is saying? There are checklists and guidance such as the “Framework for Reopening Schools” which can help Government assess and prepare — handwashing stations, temperature checks, innovative restructuring to ensure physical distancing, enforcement of mask wearing, adequate ventilation of the classrooms and risk communication… these are just a few key elements that will help ensure that we are doing all we can to prioritise learning.
This isn’t the work of the Ministry of Education alone. Rather, the effort needs to bring together the Ministries of Health, Water, Social Development, along with the UN and other partners to support the Ministry of Education to assess, consider, prepare and implement, and monitor what happens when schools do re-open.
The efforts to suppress the virus and respond to those affected is a critical part of assessing our readiness. We know it’s a possibility that when schools re-open they might have to close again. How will we respond when that happens? What procedures can be put in place for screening of sick leaners and staff?
To take care of learners, teachers and families who may be affected by COVID-19, and to ensure that learning continues. Continuously reviewing and adapting and learning as we go will be part of our charge as policymakers, development workers and educators.
Lastly, how can we seize the opportunity that COVID-19 presents in terms of better learning. This pandemic is absolutely devastating and it’s difficult to see that anything good will come out of it. But maybe this is a moment to try to reimagine education in Lesotho, where every child learns the skills, he/she needs to succeed in life and reach his or her full potential.
Let us commit now to building better and safer schools for all children and adolescents; an education system that is equitable, inclusive and resilient. Every Mosotho child, every teacher, every parent probably has an idea of to how make their schools better. Can we listen to their voices and take stock of those ideas, big and small, so that we turn this education crisis into a learning opportunity?
Anurita Bains is the UNICEF Representative in Lesotho.
Dr. Richard Banda is the WHO Representative in Lesotho.