By Daniel Mugwanda & Felix Tagutanazvo
Education, as we know it, came to a halt in many countries across the globe as a result of Covid-19-induced lockdown interventions that restricted large gatherings. Ultimately, the world is witnesssing conventional schooling slowly dying giving way to the “new normal” that could only but be embraced; e-learning; a norm of the digital age. The world over countries, especially in Europe, soon moved in to shift from classroom to online learning. For Africa in general and Zimbabwe in particular, such an intervention would require expanded fiscal intervention with a bias towards reorganisation of the whole education system especially in rural areas where the majority of the schools are yet to be renovated to accommodate such global best practices in education like e-learning, low teacher-student ratio, educational infrastructure and support systems, among others. Looking at the coronavirus, its effects and the subsequent measures, the focal point of discussion in this paper becomes the future of education in rural Zimbabwe post-Covid-19. With the government announcing a full lockdown, the re-opening of schools (second term 2020) not as obvious and the postponement of November Zimsec examinations, a cloud of uncertainty hovered over learners and this uncertainty is more pronounced for the rural learner. With such a stark reality for schools in rural areas where one school covers the community in a radius of up to 10-15km, ballooned class sizes, lack of electricity and dilapidated educational facilities, what could be the hope for rural learners in the Covid-19 crisis? The despoil of Covid-19 became opportune enough for disruptive innovation for the development of education and prospects for everyone; the rich and the poor, those in the urban schools and the rural, but also draws attention to the possibility of the rural learner taken back in years of development, further widening the gap between the urban and rural schools.
Zimbabwe has a backlog of development more so in the rural areas. Faced with a myriad of macro-economic issues, with a high stratified society where the rich are as obvious as tomorrow to God and the poor as evident as a clear sky, already a debate has ensued as the Covid-19-induced lockdown looks to continue through winter, another quagmire for the policymakers; should schools open? The reality for most schools in rural areas: One school attending to a circumference of 10-15km, ballooned class sizes, lack of electricity and dilapidated educational facilities. The curriculum is rigid and, therefore, often inflexible to accommodate rural learners who face unique obstacles which are rare to urban learners yet the same children are expected to sit for the same national examinations. The competitive aspect in the education system whereby the rural learners compete with the urban learners poses another challenge.
When the coronavirus first surfaced in China, health experts were quick to detect how fast this flu-like disease could be transmitted through air and also by people movement. What this meant was, the virus on its own is handicapped, it needs people to move. Covid-19 in no time was a raging invisible enemy of humankind, putting to a halt a lot of things globally, industries shut down, borders shut down, leaving countries in lockdown conditions. The virus had its invisible hand on education across the globe; schools had to close as a result of lockdown decisions by governments with social distancing being the most easily applicable remedy. In figures compiled by the Unesco Institute for Statistics and the International Telecommunication Union, about 826 million learners were kept out of the classroom by the Covid-19 pandemic. These learners also do not have access to a household computer and 43% (706 million) have no internet at home, at a time when digitally-based distance learning is used to ensure educational continuity in the vast majority of countries. These figures represent about half of the total number of learners across the globe.
For many developed countries, adaptation wasn’t as hard as they had fully developed ICT-supported training and education, working from home for teachers and home schooling for learners. The human contact in teaching had to be eliminated; enter the prominence of e-learning. The dilemma was more pronounced in Africa, where most of the countries are still developing. In particular, Zimbabwe came head-to-head with Covid-19 with an already fragmented education terrain, so the policy had to balance the interests of the privileged and the less privileged, the rural and the urban learners. With income per capita falling with the declining economy, the development and growth of education was
income-biased over the years, making rural areas left out especially as regards to ICT provisions — group A schools versus ordinary government schools. Most rural schools, even some urban, could not afford to continue the teaching and learning process in the Covid-19 era, with the virus becoming more challenging even to economies like South Africa.
A few years ago, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation was celebrating going on air in Lupane, Gwayi and surrounding areas after years of radio drought for Matabeleland North residents. While some posit the radio lessons/schools as a remedy, there may still be areas where radio is unavailable. Worse still, some may not have access to the radios for their kids to have radio lessons. This is the dilemma faced by the Primary and Secondary Education ministry in dealing with education and Covid-19. One of the greatest challenges is the homogeneous syllabus and examination for the learners both in the rural and urban areas and those in private schools and the government schools.
An attempt to okay the reopening of schools is challenged by the question of quality assurance. With a record of over 80% literacy rate since Independence, the quality of Zimbabwean education has been undeniably modest across the country, however, Covid-19 poses a great danger on overall quality due to a possible gap between rural and urban schools, the privileged and the less privileged; in other words, homogeneity of curricula will not guarantee homogeneous results across the education sector. In some developed countries, however, the lockdown and suspension of “normal” learning processes might have been a blessing in disguise.
Covid-19 required learners and teachers to adjust overnight, which is somewhat difficult if not impossible. The story is even worse for teachers in regions where ICT and other distance methodologies are less available; the transition has been even more difficult or impossible. This is true when one views through a hawk’s eye on rural education and response to Covid-19. Online learning depends on both teacher and learner capacitation. Clearly e-learning has its apparent shortcomings that make it less palatable to most developing countries.
lDaniel Mugwanda and Felix Tagutanazvo are independent opinion contributors, with particular interest in a career development-based model education. This is shown through the establishment of the Centre for Career and Leadership Training in Zimbabwe Trust, a community-based organisation aimed at supporting education by practicalising formal education and curricula development in the country.
The resumption of classes by elite schools laid bare the inequalities that exist in the Zimbabwean education system. There is a massive education gap between the haves and have-nots, the privileged and the less privileged, the rural and the urban learners. This problem being further buttressed by the incessant increase in data and internet charges by mobile network operators and internet service providers. This has left a few to afford online classes. The most affected of the learners are those in rural areas where internet infrastructure is minimal. Educationist Caiphus Nziramasanga reckons in instances such as these, government should provide alternatives. “Not everyone will be able to have access to the internet, however, providing radio and television lessons are possible,” he said.
While the pandemic has been disruptive, it may be viewed as an opportunity for Zimbabwe education. For a long time there had been imminent signs of what today is the new norm, the uptake has been slow both from policy makers to the community. Zimbabwe with its stratified education system, one that favours the haves against the have notes, one with evident variance between the pure rural schools and the urban schools in terms of education support systems, if the right to universal education and equitable access to education are goals that should be prioritized especially in tandem with the World Health Organisation guidelines then the fiscal focus by the government in terms of education should prioritise the rural schools. Government policy on education should open up regulations on schools ownership to allow more independent players; it should allow development partners room to interact with schools to allow pooling of resources. The writers came up with a few recommendations that include the following:
lCovid-19 is a perfect template of possibly persistent events and circumstances that will militate against the ease of education, as such the government teacher training programme should prioritise research and development which will inform training curriculum. With that it would be easy to plan for example for floods, droughts and disease as is case with Covid-19. All the mentioned eventualities have an effect more prominent in rural schools. It is in rural areas where learners will mostly not go to school because of floods as compared to urbanites. In 2019 Zimbabwe experienced Cyclone Idai. While the general effects of Cyclone Idai was on the nation in terms of response, the direct impact was on rural education. Rural teachers need to undergo a complimentary training programme that sets up an education disaster response framework, through which teachers action in the cases of disasters, this helps as these are the people on the ground to deal with any such challenge.
lGovernment budget on education should give priority to rural communities. Traditionally comparisons on schools would factor in among other things house hold income; significant in this variable is the fact that per capita income in rural communities is low, making rural schools vulnerable in terms of financial support. Having taught at rural schools for quite some time, the researchers understand how it is a struggle for schools to mobilize finances to purchase a computer for an example. This calls for government to go deep in its fiscal pocket to support rural schools, annual budget must give prominence to ICT development, education related systems such as dedicated libraries, furniture, and infrastructure, among others. The government can set aside a dedicated budget for rural education development pillars like training, ICT, incentives and facilities, among others.
lIn its fight against Covid-19 government has set up a national response team to the pandemic. The same should be decentralised to include the grassroots communities. In other words, push for a multi stake holder framework to ensure no one is left behind in the fight against Covid-19. This will bring about a policy but in from community. While there has been a continued debate on the role of SDA authority in the management of schools, it becomes imperative to re-examine and reaffirm the role towards development and capacitation of schools. This is in the perspective of coming up with incentive models that will attract qualified and adaptive teachers.