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Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today” - Malcolm X.
One of the most devastating effects (with imminent, disastrous effects) of the advent of the coronavirus is the deprivation of learning time for students - an outcome that has affected many learners across the globe.

This crucial process of students continuing with their learning has been severely disrupted by the threat posed by the virus and implored many countries globally, affected by the COVID-19 to engage in lockdown restrictions, such necessitating governments to even close down schools as a preventative measure to curb the spread of the virus. A lot of learning time has been lost and as the old idiom says, ‘time lost can never be regained’, the period away from classrooms may have long-term and far-reaching consequences.

European countries like Denmark, Poland and France, respectively, have already opened their schools. Our immediate neighbour, South Africa, from whom we mostly copy and adopt some of her lockdown restrictions, is also gearing up to open her schools on June 1, in a gradual easing down of lockdown restrictions, locally, the million-dollar question is: how ready are we to follow the trend, that is, the reopening of our schools, when the threat of the coronavirus is still so real?

It is no secret that as a country, we have followed closely in mimicking what some local commentators, albeit, with sarcastic undertones, have dubbed a ‘copy and paste’ exercise or replica of what some countries have put in place. I must hasten to say that copying what other countries have done (and are doing), on its own, is no crime and does not in any way make us appear as if we are lacking in innovation or ingenuity. Personally, one of the greatest lessons I have learned in life is that ‘if it works...by all means, do or copy it!’

For Pete’s sake!, to the detractors, please appreciate that this pandemic is new, took many countries by surprise and that there was no ready-made blue print for global countries to apply. Copying (and/or pasting) whatever other countries are doing to combat the virus, as long as it works and saves the lives of our people, is smart and moral. We could and must not afford to allow our infamous Eswatini pride to cloud our judgement, making us susceptible to the wiles of our egos.The health of hundreds, if not thousands, of our people, is at stake here. For once, let us be patriots and be united in the face of the colossal battle we are facing against a common and formidable enemy.

schools opening

Back to the pressing question of when and how schools should be opened... Two, key, and dominant players are involved in deciding when, how, or why schools should open - these are the Ministry of Education and Training and the giant, influential and formidable teacher’s union - the Swaziland National Association (SNAT), respectively. The latter, as much as past history has proven that it is a constant thorn in the flesh of the Ministry of Education, especially its incumbent minister, cannot be wished away, ignored, or shut out from playing a pivotal role in having an input on how schools should be opened. In light of the threat posed by the Covid-19, every stakeholder has to be invited and involved in this mammoth, life or death situation. Any decision taken has to  be carefully thought out so that it does not boomerang and expose our children to the fatalities posed by the coronavirus.

Is reopening of schools going to make children vulnerable to the dangers posed by the COVID-19? According to the Indian Express, quote : “Scientific research on children with Covid-19 is still an emerging area. Published studies so far indicate that incidence among children is low compared to adults, but older children report more cases. According to a report published by the John Hopkins Centre for Health Security this week, that summarises findings of published literature, in the US, “among 2 572 pediatric COVID-19 cases, 15 per cent occurred in children who were under one year old, 11 per cent occurred in children ages one to four years, 15 per cent occurred in children ages five to nine years, 27 per cent occurred in children ages 10 to 14 years, and 32 per cent occurred in children ages 15 to 17 years” - unquote.

The report goes on to mention that ‘infected children do not fall severely ill as adults, with most recovering without hospitalisation and that, however, the precise role of children in the transmission of the virus is still unclear...’
A week or so ago, the Ministry of Education and Training, announced that it will reschedule the school academic calendar. It confirmed that they were still monitoring the situation and that, ‘once there was a way forward regarding the current COVID-19 situation, they would then announce what the calender would look like’. Sought for comment, the secretary general of SNAT pointed out that, ‘recovery of time lost, by pupils would be the result of consultations between the educators and the Ministry of Education’.

teachers 15 demands

The teacher’s union later on made known fifteen (15) conditions that must be met by government prior to opening of schools. They put it succinctly clear that government must come to the party and move with ‘supersonic speed’ in achieving the requirements they put forward, “failing which, the 2020 academic year could simply be rendered a wasted year...” Chief among the tabled requirements were the demand for extensive disinfection of all schools and tertiary institutions in the country; deployment of a team of health professionals to inspect conditions in schools to determine the level of sanitation and that these should be in line with the World Health Organisation’s standards.

Since one of the crucial, preventative measures against COVID-19 infections is availability of water, SNAT emphasised the need for provision of water tanks in all schools to ensure a constant supply of clean, running water. The organisation also demanded that there should be nurses stationed to all schools and tertiary institutions, who shall conduct temperature scans for teachers, pupils, support staff and anyone entering each school. Massive testing was also a requirement, since it was “evident that local transmission is much more rapid...”

Another key requirement was a teacher-pupils ratio. No classroom should have more than 20 individuals, including teachers at a particular time. Transportation of learners on a daily basis needed to be in full conformity with the crucial, social distancing regulations and that all learners must be equipped with masks. As a country, we are indeed faced with a tricky situation. A balancing act needs to be employed to strike a balance between the right of children to education and the consideration for their health and safety. This calls for a united and thorough consultation between all stakeholders.

minister’s controversy

Now comes the most perplexing and dumbfounding reaction from the Ministry of Education, more specifically and allegedly coming from the incumbent Minister of Education....As reported by the Times of Eswatini daily on May 6, 2020, it is alleged that the minister pointed out that all the demands made by SNAT, “were a work in progress by the Ministry of Education COVID-19 Task Team.” She allegedly expressed ‘shock that SNAT now owned the conditions that should be met before the opening of schools, stating that some people were just seeking popularity within the electorate...’

Well, well, what goes on here? Who is fooling who? The minister allegedly said that, ‘someone could have leaked the document to SNAT’ and ‘urged that the ministry should be left alone to do its job in peace without any interference...’. I give up! For Pete’s sake! We are in the middle of and faced with a very calamitous era in our existence as a country and there are leaders who waste precious time reacting in an egocentric and narcissistic manner? We are quite aware, as a concerned people, that there is no love lost between the minister and the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT), but such shocking, alleged reactions from an honourable minister, are very disturbing and disappointing, if not preposterous.

Some of us were impressed with the reaction from the SNAT Secretary General, who exhibited calm and maturity in his reaction to the alleged outburst by the minister. He is quoted as having said that, “the minister has the right to think the way she did and exercised freedom of speech in her argument...” and that, “as SNAT, we do not have the energy to address her comments...”
That was sobering, to say the least!

As if pouring scorn to the alleged minister’s sentiments and done so in a very diplomatic manner, I must emphasise, he hit the final nail on the coffin by saying, “the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic on humanity dictated that they (all stakeholders, I presume) needed to rise above such sentiments and do things that would assist the general Eswatini populace in fighting the virus...” As far as some of us are concerned, the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT) is an integral part of - and a vital cog in the whole machinery that is the educational system of the country. It plays a pivotal role in the teaching of our learners, preparing them for a post-education future.

They painstakingly nurture the present lives of our children, preparing them for the unknown futy and logic dictates that they must be involved when the health and future of learners is at stake. It is imperative that as a country faced with the greatest threat in our existence, we all and collectively pool our resources together, put aside petty differences and find lasting solutions that will render a common enemy, comatose and defeated.

The Ministry of Education (and the honourable minister) must understand that teachers are intellectuals and professionals - and need to be treated as such. Let us not allow pride and egotism to divide us and cause us to fight among ourselves over petty issues. We need to open schools, but only when the conditions are conducive and after careful consideration of the health of our children, especially in a crowded environment like schools.

Parents, who are deeply concerned about the health of their children, need also to be roped in and have a say in the opening of schools. After all, it is them who should have the final say in approving strategies put in place to safeguard the health of their children - and that they are safe and sound. We cannot compromise the health of our children. No! We look upon and fervently hope our leaders will make the best - and healthy of decisions. Shalom!

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