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COVID-19 PANDEMIA AND THE LEARNING CRISIS IN SCHOOLS

LUNGWANGWA

1. INTRODUCTION

THE global community ascended to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015. Among these goals is Sustainable Development Goal number 4 which requires that ALL CHILDREN MUST HAVE QUALITY PRIMARY AND SECONDARY EDUCATION by 2030. 

All countries, Zambia included, signed and embraced this goal. To rephrase SDG number 4 in country specific terms, it says that all children in primary and secondary schools in Zambia must have quality education by 2030. How this is to be achieved at country level is a 

matter of serious critical introspection. SDG number 4 calls for a higher depth of political commitment that should be given to education by government leaders in each country. 

Political commitment involves: the priority given to education in national development agenda, the resources allocated to it in the national budget, the reforms undertaken to ensure quality education for each child, the support accorded to school managers and the teachers, the necessary home and community sensitisation efforts put in place support for quality education, the assessment tools undertaken to monitor progress towards the goal among others. 

In other words achieving SDG number 4 is a complex task.  The point to note however is that the commitment towards the attainment of quality primary and secondary education for every child by 2030 was made without any idea of the calamity that would befall the world just a few years after ascending to this goal. 

The calamity of global magnitude being the Coronavirus (Covid-19) which gripped the attention of the entire world from December 2019, four years after signing the SDGs. 

The impact on education of Covid-19 and now its variant Omnicron, is a matter of serious concern. Educationists are paying serious attention to the impact the pandemic is having on education. Since it is not known when this Covid-19 pandemic shall end it can be assumed that education shall remain under its impact for an indefinite period.  This is the focus of this article.

GLOBAL CONCERNS ABOUT THE IMPACT OF COVID-19 VIRUS ON EDUCATION

The impact of Covid-19 on education has been described as the worst crisis that has affected education globally in the last 100 years. Never in the history of the world has education been brought to a standstill globally in a manner that Covid-19 did in 2020. 

Experience shows that from May 2020 schools in most countries of the world were closed. The year 2020 has gone down in history as the year of GLOBAL LOCKDOWN OF EDUCATION. 

Children were taken out of their social spaces, that is schools, for several months and spent this time in their homes. The uncertainty about when schools would reopen was definitely depressing to most children. When viewed against the daily media reports about the infection rates of Covid-19 in different countries and the rising death rates from it, children in various parts of the world were both terrified and depressed.

It is estimated that about 1.7 billion children in the world were out of school during the worldwide closure of schools from May 2020. The World Bank in its learning poverty assessments reported that closures of schools as a result of Covid-19 took place at the time when about half of the school children aged 10 years could not read a simple paragraph and understand it. 

During the period of school closures efforts were made by various countries to enable children learn through such media as the internet, radio and television. However because of the digital divide, remote learning through various media widened inequalities of access to learning among children.

Children come from homes that differ in digital technology facilities. Children from homes with digital technologies like internet, radio and television were easily facilitated in their learning within the comforts of their homes. 

Such preveleged children are however very few in developing countries. The majority of the children are from homes with no internet connectivity or television and radio signals. 

In the same vein, most children are from homes that have no books that can assist them to learn. Further, the family conditions of the majority of school children are such that parents, guardians or other siblings in the homes are not able to assist their learning. 

The diminishing opportunities for learning among the majority of children are exasperated further by the economic recession faced by many countries which has resulted in reduced education budgets. The economic recession together with Covid-19 effects has significantly reduced family incomes which has negatively affected the family’s capacity to support the education of their children. Most families in low income countries are economically stressed and not able to adequately meet the education needs of their children.

Economists looking at education are projecting big drops in income opportunities in future among the current generation of school children as a result of their poor learning. 

The impact of Covid-19 on education from a global perspective is that it has brought about a LEARNING CRISIS for the majority school going children. The overall goal of SDG number 4 will for the greater majority of children not be attainable. 

Covid-19 has, to a large extent, brought about a learning crisis of unimaginable proportion. Countries are still struggling to understand how Covid-19 has affected the education system and what will become of it and the current generation of school children beyond the pandemic.

This makes it imperative to look at this LEARNING CRISIS from a country specific context.

PRE COVID-19 AND
LEARNING CRISIS IN ZAMBIA

Learning crisis in Zambian schools is not a new topic in education discourse.  Critical observers of Zambian education do remember that as far back as 1992 the Ministry of Education came up with a policy document entitled FOCUS ON LEARNING whose objective was to take measures that could improve the quality of learning in schools. 

There are many indicators of learning crisis in Zambian schools and they include but limited to: 

i) Low teacher /pupil ratios. Most schools in rural areas do not have more than three teachers responsible for seven or nine grades.

ii) Overcrowded classrooms. This is an urban schools problem. The official classroom size is 40 pupils. However because of large numbers of pupil enrolments in urban schools it is possible to have 60 pupils in a class. This is what has given rise to double sessions.

iii) Low textbook/pupil ratios. Education materials like textbooks have generally been in short supply in most public schools. It is common to find children in a public school who complete a grade without having seen a textbook of the subject they were learning.

iv) Little contact hours at school. Most Zambian children especially those in urban areas have very low contact school hours. On average, children in urban public schools operating on double sessions spend two hours at school. That translates into 10 hours per week, 40 hours per month, 120 hours per term and 360 hours per year. When translated into days 360 hours is about 15 days which is two weeks. 

In other words Zambian school children attending double session schools are in school for a period of two weeks in a year.  That is they are out of school for 50 weeks. If such factors like holidays or illness of the child are factored in the children’s school contact time is very little.

v) Poor supervision of schools. Supervision of what teachers do in schools by standards officers especially in rural areas is nonexistent. Supervision of schools is the support base of learning in schools.  Lack of transport for Standards Officers to supervise what schools are doing does not guarantee effective school learning in public schools.

vi) Poor disbursement of school grants. Schools have for a long time complained about poor disbursement of grants for their operations. This has affected their teaching and learning because they could not procure simple things like chalk.

vii) Dilapidation in infrastructure and lack of supporting facilities. This is one of the old problems in public schools. It is common to find children sitting on wooden logs or on the floor during school lessons because of lack of desks. The state of buildings in some public schools is an eyesore.

The factors outlined here lead to the conclusion that Zambia has for a long time faced a learning crisis in its public schools. The severity of this crisis as manifested in the chidren’s ability to read, write, calculate, or communicate is a matter that researchers should have put their minds to. 

The point however is that Covid-19 hit the country when schools were for a long time already in a learning crisis. It remains for critical observers on education to highlight how the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened this problem of long standing magnitude. Very little attention has so far been given to this vexing problem of significant education concern.

COVID-19 AND THE DISRUPTION OF THE SCHOOL CALENDER

Zambia like many other countries in the world was least prepared for the Covid-19 outbreak. Being a member of the global community news about the outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan, China in December 2019 was received in the country at the same time as elsewhere in the world. Reports of how the virus was spreading and affecting the lives of people in various countries was followed on daily basis. The first case of Covid-19 in Zambia was reported on March 18, 2020.

The first vivid impact of Covid-19 on education in Zambia was the disruption of the school calender. First schools which should have closed in May 2020 had an early closure on March 28. This was about five weeks before the scheduled normal closure for Term 1. Term 1 of 2020 lasted for about eight weeks. 

The rising levels of Covid-19 in the country and elsewhere created panic and measures for early closure of schools was a way of protecting the children and teachers from infections.

To be continued next week

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