By Thabiso Scotch Mufambi
Harare – The World Bank estimates that the worldwide closure of institutions of learning could result in a loss of at least US$10 trillion in lifetime earnings for the current school-going generation.
It is such statistics that have spurred the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) to lead a sustained lobby to get governments to keep schools open through the successive waves of the COVID-19 pandemic.
School closures in 2020 saw 214 million students missing at least three quarters of face-to-face learning time because of COVID-19.
Virus-control interventions have centred on restricting movements of people to minimise the spread of the virus, and this has meant pupils and students have lost irredeemable learning time since the onset of the pandemic.
“As we enter the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and as cases continue to soar around the world, no effort should be spared to keep schools open or prioritise them in reopening plans. Children cannot afford another year of school closures,” UNICEF says in its report titled “COVID-19 and School Closures, One Year of Education Disruption”.
“With every day that goes by, these children will fall further behind and the most vulnerable will pay the heaviest price. Governments must reopen schools better than before and ensure every child can return to school. School closures are expected to exacerbate the learning crisis that existed before the pandemic, with the most vulnerable children being the most adversely affected.”
UNICEF said global class attendance between March 2020 and February 2021 was severely cut by the pandemic.
“In the period between March 11, 2020 and February 2, 2021, schools have been fully closed for an average of 95 instruction days globally, which represents approximately half the time intended for classroom instruction,” adds the UN agency.
“Globally, 214 million students from pre-primary to upper secondary education in 23 countries have missed at least three-quarters of classroom instruction time at the pre-primary to upper secondary level since March 2020. Of these 214 million students, 168 million in 14 countries missed almost all classroom instruction time due to school closures.”
Countries in the Latin America and Caribbean region were the most affected, with an average of 158 days of full school closures; followed by countries in South Asia (146 days), and then East and Southern Africa (101 days).
Globally, Panama holds the dubious record for the most number of days of full school closures since March 11, 2020. The country has closed its schools for 211 days, followed by El Salvador (205), Bangladesh (198), and Bolivia (192).
Online classes have replaced face to face tuition, but many people have complained that this mode of learning grossly discriminates against the poor majority who cannot afford ICT gadgets and internet connectivity.
“Countries with the longest durations of school closures tend to have a low prevalence of school-age children with a fixed internet connection at home,” UNICEF says. “Recent data show that over 90 percent of education ministries worldwide have implemented some form of remote learning approaches that involve radio, television or the internet.
“While no remote learning technology can completely replace the classroom learning experience, some technologies have features that allow them to better emulate classroom settings. TV and radio require programs to be pre-recorded and make live, interactive lessons difficult. In contrast, digital technology such as the internet, personal computers, tablets and mobile phones may be more suitable for emulating classroom-like interactions.”
Not a Bloodbath
Reduced face-to-face learning time has had consequences, and this is evident in the results for various levels that were released recently by different Southern African countries.
In South Africa, the national matric pass rate for 2020 dropped by 5.1 percent to 76.2 percent. The 2019 pass rate was 81.3 percent.
Commenting on the results, South Africa’s Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said the lower pass rate was expected given the disruptions to the 2020 school calendar. She, however, commended the matriculants for performing beyond expectation.
“In essence, I was expecting a bloodbath,” she said. “I am very grateful and appreciative of our teachers and our learners who held their own in very difficult conditions. We tried everything in our power to claw back on lost time, which we could not.”
Across the Limpopo, Zimbabwe recorded one of its worst failure rates at the Grade Seven level in 2020.
Results for the last examination period saw the Grade Seven national pass rate drop by 9.79 percent to 37.11 percent. In 2019, the pass rate stood at 46.1 percent.
In worst case scenarios, some schools in Zimbabwe – mostly rural – recorded zero percent pass rates, a development attributed to a lack of access to ICT gadgets and the Internet for rural learners.
However, it was not all doom and gloom in the region as some countries recorded improved pass rates despite the COVID-19 situation.
Namibia, for instance, recorded an improved pass rate in the 2020 National Secondary School Certificate (NSSC) examinations.
The pass rate rose from 61 percent in 2019 to 63.5 percent in 2020, but this was a drop from the 66.7 percent recorded in 2018.
Namibia’s Education, Arts and Culture Minister Anna Nghipondoka said the results were: “remarkable and deserve to be celebrated.”
“Surely, the interruption of the school calendar and face-to-face teaching has unleashed the urge for both teachers and learners to give their best,” she said.
Zambia also performed well despite the odds.
According to that country’s Minister of General Education Dr Dennis Wanchinga, the 2020 Grade Nine and Seven examination results showed that of the 254 852 candidates who sat for the Grade nine examinations, 135,300 passed the examination and have progressed to Grade 10 representing 53.07 percent pass rate compared to 46.14 percent recorded in the 2019 examination.
However, UNICEF has warned that early evidence from school closures suggested an increase in early marriages and sexual violence in some countries.
This, according to UNICEF, provides extra incentive for governments to ensure schools re-open safely and as soon as possible.
“Despite overwhelming evidence of the impact of school closures on children, and despite increasing evidence that schools are not drivers of the pandemic, too many countries have opted to keep schools closed, some for nearly a year.
“As schools reopen, governments must nurture the development and well-being of every student when they return to the classroom, with comprehensive services including remedial learning, health and nutrition, and mental health and protection measures. Authorities must also ensure all children return to school when classrooms reopen.”