By Arkangel Tembo, MANA
Government, through the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, has formed a taskforce to oversee the issue of possible re-opening of schools and colleges that were closed on March 23 in view of the COVID-19.
The membership is drawn from the academia, civil society, development partners and school associations to map the way forward on whether to re-open schools soon.
The taskforce was formed on Wednesday at Mount Soche Hotel in Blantyre during the National Stakeholders Planning Meeting and is chaired by Prof. Lewis Dzimbiri, who is chairperson of Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR).
Other members are Justin Saidi, who is Secretary for Education; Benedicto Kondowe from Civil Society Education Coalition; Rev. Fr. George Buleya from Association of Private Universities in Malawi; Charles Kamanga from Teachers Union of Malawi and Joseph Patel from Independent Schools Association of Malawi.
Also in the committee are Dr Limbani Nsapato from Edukans; Br. Pascal Mtwana from Association of Christian Education in Malawi; George Chiunda; Ruth Samati Kambali; Symon Maunde; Dr Dan Namarika; Kimanzi Muthengi; Sabina Morley and Christine Veverka.
Minister of Education, Dr William Susuwele said government has been receiving proposals to reconsider re-opening the schools because students have been idle.
“We thought it was proper for us to consult the stakeholders and this meeting we have people from universities, private schools and civil societies to look at whether to re-open the schools as soon as possible.
After the discussions, we have formed a committee that will look at the situation on the ground and as government we will from them come up with a final decision,” he said.
Edukans country director, Limbani Nsapato said forming a taskforce was a positive development because the issues that are discussed would be critical.
He said the education sector was dealing with more than 8 million children in the country which is half of the country’s population.
“There is pressure outside to re-open the schools, but we have to think of the risks that we are getting into because we are taking half of the country’s population at risk and this is something that we have to think about.
“This committee will give an opportunity to weigh on both sides to say what are the advantages and disadvantages of re-opening schools right now,” Nsapato said.
Personally, Nsapato was of the views that schools should not be re-opened soon, given the fact that the nation will be putting many children and teachers at risk of contracting the Coronavirus.
“We need to take advise from health professionals and let the committee review the situation.
“I know that the private sector, parents and students may want us to re-open schools soon but l think for now it is important that this committee develop a frame work for re-opening schools which looks at the key indicators supported by the health personals,” he said.
Civil Society Education Coalition, Executive Director Benedicto Kondowe, said if health assessment provides an indication that the country could still re-open schools perhaps it could restrict it as a starting point to standard eight, form four, IGSCE and fourth year students in universities and colleges.
“If we can start gradual it will provide us an opportunity to learn from the measures on how effective they are and how best we can improve so that when government is to order full opening of the schools we will have documented best practices from this small group that we would want to start with,” he said.
Kondowe said in any emergency you cannot wait until it comes to an end.
“What if that emergency takes 12 months or two years? We need to plan around the intervention emergency and beyond,” he said.
Dr John Phuka from the College of Medicine, who is a member in the Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19, warns that rushing re-opening schools at this time could be risky to the children and teachers.
“It is risky to re-open schools because we are in the very early phase of the epidemic. At this point it is also difficult to relax because the epidemic is still on the rise,” he warned.
Pressure to re-open education institutions comes especially from private schools and colleges who are that church gatherings continue operating though with strict social distance compliance while bars and central markets remain open with little compliance to social distancing.
Since candidates presented their nomination papers to the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC), some of the strict measures — keeping social distance; avoiding mass gatherings and staying at home — that were set in declaring a State of Disaster, have been flouted as the candidates are organizing mass political rallies ahead of the July 2 fresh presidential elections.
This utter disregard to the dangers associated with mass gatherings where infections can easily be passed on has been criticized by the public as well as CSOs and other stakeholders as this sends wrong signals to people who might decide not serious take some of the preventive measures.
Before the first presentation of nomination papers at Mount Soche Hotel by the electoral alliance of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and UTM Party on Wednesday last week, started over 30 minutes late because the MEC Commissioners were refusing to enter a congested hall.
Prior to the presentation exercise, MEC had stressed that the parties and candidates were only supposed to send 20 delegates but on this day, the hall was contaminated by other unaccredited officials and supporters, prompting the Commissioners to refuse to enter the hall to administer the process.
Outside the hotel and in the streets, thousands of supporters had gathered and as soon as the exercise was done, MCP president Lazarus Chakwera and his running mate Saulos Chilima went on a motorcade parade along streets of Blantyre passing through Ndirande where they drew mass gatherings to take a glimpse of them.
The next day was the same during the turn of the president of Democratic Progress Party (DPP) Peter Mutharika and his running mate Atupele Muluzi of the United Democratic Party (UDF) but sanity had been restored in the hall as there was a sizable number of delegates.
But these two also went on a motorcade parade and also passed through Ndirande — equally drawing large crowds.
Atupele went on a whistle stop of tour last Saturday from Blantyre to Mangochi, stopping at Thondwe, Zomba City central, Chinamwali Namwera Turn-off, Liwonde and Ulongwe to finish with a mass rally at Mangochi Boma.
The next day he visited Ntcheu and also attracted mass gatherings while Chakwera and Chilima held their mass rally in Mzuzu also on Sunday.
All these leaders have been advocating for the public to take the preventive measures seriously but they are the same who are flouting it.
When announcing the official launch of the campaign period on May 2 that will run for 30 days to end on June 30, MEC chairperson Justice Jane Ansah SC asked all candidates to find other innovative ways of reaching out to the electorate considering that this will be done during the COVID-19 pandemic.—Additional reporting by Duncan Mlanjira