Africa’s Children Must Return to School

By September 2020, where the end of the school year often coincides with the end of a calendar year, many African countries were still in a quandary as to whether or not to re-open schools.

In Kenya, for example, George Magoha, the cabinet secretary for education, had previously said, ‘[T]he ministry will not bow to pressure to reopen schools until the country flattens its infection curve.’ He had added that schools would be closed for the rest of the school year. By mid-September, however, the infection curve had flattened enough for Magoha to announce that ‘Phased school reopening could kick off in November 2020 if educational institutions fully comply with the coronavirus preventive measures’.

By mid-September, Zimbabwean authorities decided to re-open primary and secondary schools for students sitting for Cambridge International Examinations. Those students taking local examinations were scheduled to return to school to revise from 28 September 2020.

A quarter of all out-of-school children globally are currently in Nigeria. This amounts to 10 million students. In mid- September, the Nigerian government announced plans to reopen schools for the first time since March, although some secondary schools were partially reopened in Lagos in August, to allow students to sit for their exit examinations.

Many national and international aid organisations have expressed fear that millions of Nigerian children simply won’t ever return to school due to extreme conditions that include insufficient budgetary spending on education, misuse of funds intended for schools, the unceasing trafficking of young girls, teen marriages, political instability, and conflict.

‘There are fears that many young people will fall through the cracks, disappear from the school systems, and become long-term victims of the emergency,’ says Ewan Watt, editor of Theirworld, a global children’s charity.

Most public schools in Nigeria do not meet the COVID-19 health and safety regulations. They are, says Watt, notoriously underfunded, overcrowded and dilapidated. Some Nigerian state education authorities have tried to extend learning opportunities to the ‘lost generation’ via radio and apps like uLesson, Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Classrooms.

However, Theirworld estimates that 102 million Nigerians live in extreme poverty, and can’t afford smartphones or data, (at an average cost of N1,000 (US$2.60) for 1GB).

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), by 12 October 2020, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Chad, the Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Sierra Leone were the only central and West African region countries that had managed to fulfil their obligations to students in terms of school safety preparedness. Other countries continue to struggle to meet more basic needs. In Guinea- Bissau, for example, only 12% of citizens have access to soap and water, reports UNICEF.

In Niger, the figure climbs slightly to 15%, and slightly more to 22% in Senegal. Throughout these regions, classes are overcrowded, diminishing the value of social distancing. Historically, there have never been enough trained teachers to support children’s education.

UNICEF regional director Marie-Pierre Poirier said publicly that: ‘With every day that goes by, millions of children and young people unable to safely access learning opportunities are missing out on their right to an education and putting their future at risk.

Without school to attend, they are made vulnerable to issues such as early pregnancy, child marriage, and recruitment into local armed groups.

On another part of the continent, Mohamed Malick Fall, regional director for UNICEF in Eastern and Southern Africa echoed Poirier, saying:

Seven months into the pandemic, we must be very clear about the gravity of this crisis: we are at risk of losing a generation. We see lost learning, rising violence, rising child labour, forced child marriages, teen pregnancies and diminished nutrition. A generation of children is at risk, and at the most critical time in our continent’s history.

We are at a time of unprecedented population growth. If this expanded workforce can receive quality learning at school, the potential for increased production could sustain an economic boom to drastically reduce poverty in Africa – where currently 70% per cent of sub-Saharan Africa’s people live on less than US$ 2 per day.

Fall estimates that around 65 million children in Eastern and Southern Africa have lost almost a full year of schooling. He emphasised the lessons learned by medical experts during the pandemic, saying: ‘Much effort was spent at the start of this pandemic reminding all of the dangers of COVID-19 and the necessary precautions. Things have evolved – we now know [that] greater dangers for children lie by being outside the classroom. That message needs to be heard’.

In addition to South Africa, the following countries have responded positively to the message: Botswana, Eritrea, Eswatini, Madagascar, Somalia, Zambia, and more recently, Malawi and Angola. In East-Central Africa, the Rwandan education ministry recently inspected secondary schools to ascertain their readiness. As a result, the reopening of secondary and primary schools was expected to occur in November.

And in the Democratic Republic of Congo, during a radio broadcast, education minister Didier Budimbu told citizens that the start of the school year for 2020-2021 is effective from 12 October 2020 throughout the country.