There’s risk in opening schools now, but for how long?

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By Taruberekera Masara
The government of Zimbabwe is knee deep in it’s preparations for the second term for Primary and Second schools. But the outstanding question has been ‘is it safe to open schools now’.
Teacher trade unions such as the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe PTUZ said that reopening school this winter is suicidal and genocidal act. PTUZ pointed out that the government had not serviced schools enough to receive learners for the second term. The union in its July 8 Press release said schools are underresourced to be able to buy PPEs and other equipment needed to abate the spread of the Covid 19 disease.
Across the country various schools have in the past emerged as disease epicenters and in some cases schools being closed after a spike Covid 19 cases. John Tallach High school in Matabeleland is one such example. It is with such a background that Teachers Union are asking the government to stop opening schools until thorough precautions are taken.
But for how long? Around the world many countries seem to have accepted the reality of new normal and are adjusting to the reality. As dangerous as it is we too have to learn to live with Covid 19,adjust and move forward with the new normal.
While the submissions made by PTUZ are understandable,valid and well intentioned,the grand question is how long will we keep kids out of schools. What are the long term effects of doing that. Can’t there be an option to avert the crisis? The Covid 19 situation is hard to comprehend and has far reaching consequences for school kids.
Whether children attend classrooms or learn remotely at home, each option carries a risk of harm to students, their families and the adults who work with them. The novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 can spread through the enclosed halls and classrooms of a school building.
While prolonged reliance on virtual learning alone may disrupt a child’s educational and social development and can have serious longer-term economic repercussions,no other option has been better than virtual learning in terms of management of spreading of the virus.
Many parents and communities also have to rely on school systems for basic childcare during working hours. And because online learning itself often requires at least some adult help, even parents who are able to work from home can find themselves in the extremely stressful positions of having what amounts to two full-time jobs: paid work and unpaid childcare and teaching.
 The situation is often described in terms such as “crushing.” It can cause economic problems, as well as mental health ones. If schools do not reopen, some parents may be forced to leave the workforce—and then be unable to return. On an individual level, families will lose income; on a society-wide level, the economy could be severely damaged.
The trick is to open schools safely. Mitigation measures such as required masking, class cohorting and physical barriers between desks can go a long way in reducing covid-19 transmission.
Different strategies should be developed for elementary-age children than for older students, because there are differences in the importance of schooling by age and because older children appear to be more susceptible to the virus compared with younger ones.
Critically, teachers need to feel safe and supported — without their buy-in, in-person learning is impossible. In particular, teachers should be near the front of the line when it comes to vaccination. PTUZ reported that most of its members are not vaccinated and vaccination program has been lethargic and mired with red tape.
“Put succinctly, teachers and pupils are not immune to covid 19 and their health and safety must be prioritised”,
“We are also aware that government has no capacity to test all 136 000 teachers, ancillary staff and nearly 6 million pupils”,
“It is suicidal to allow the congregation of people of such magnitude in schools in a period of escalation of covid 19 cases” said PTUZ.
Doing all that requires planning and resources — investments that have been inconsistently made across school districts. And it also requires frank and open conversations among stakeholders, which might be even more difficult than finding time and money for mitigation efforts.
The only way to move forward safely with in-person learning by being honest about the risks posed by covid-19 in schools and the ways in which we can overcome them. According to teacher organizations the government is employing one size fits all solution to an environment that is not homogeneous. PTUZ it’s submissions said that:”At any rate we have minors in schools that cannot fully comprehend the impact of covid 19″.
” If we have closed institutions used by adults, how can we open schools where there are kids? We are also aware that schools do not have covid abatement equipment, and money allocated to assist schools has not filtered to schools, while standard operation procedures have not been followed” they wrote.
Failure to find a balanced path forward, the consequences are either put teachers, students and families at risk from the virus or force them to suffer the costs of closed schools for many more months while we wait for the vaccine to curb transmission.
Without safety measures—or with sudden spikes in community spread—other schools may reopen only to quickly close campuses as well.