By Sylvester Kumwenda, MANA
The Ministry of Education, Science & Technology has announced that following the various strides the country has made in the fight against COVID-19, learning institutions will reopen from September 7, in phases starting with examination classes.
Government ordered closure of all learning institutions in Malawi in March even before the first case of COVID-19 was recorded in the country, as a preventive measure to the emergence and subsequent spread of the pandemic.
Addressing the media in Lilongwe on Thursday, Minister of Education, Agnes Nyalonje said following various consultations, it would now be safer to reopen schools but under strict observation of COVID-19 preventative measures.
The first groups to report back to school on September 7 are Standard 8 learners, Form 4 students, teachers under the IPTE 14 and final year students in universities.
The second group is expected to report back to school three weeks later on October 12, and these are students in Forms 1 to 3 and pupils from Standard 1 to 7.
Higher learning institutions will have to make plans as to when to take in the second phase of students.
However, the Minister has instructed that learners from Standard 1 to 4 should not be reporting to school at the same time because there are a lot of students in these classes unlike in the upper classes.
As such, head teachers should make arrangements as to how pupils in these classes should best be alternating in reporting to school.
“This opening will be done with a lot of measures in place to allow us to monitor the situation,” she said. “That is why we are saying we have to balance the right to life and right to education so that as we are opening, we do not just open this up in a free for all manner, but rather to help schools put in place and maintain preventive measures.
“The ministry of health has put in a decentralized system that is accompanying every level of preparations in every areas schools are.”
The Minister said despite reopening schools because of the strides made in fighting the pandemic, it was also crucial to reopen schools considering the importance education plays in the development of the nation.
She said expert statistics indicate closing schools for a year can result in a 2.5-3% depression of an economy which can be felt for 40 years.
“Education is designed to provide skills that are going to run the different industries, companies and various sectors of our country.
“Right now we are talking of a new and better Malawi for all, but to change Malawi we need the engineers, doctors and all the different skills, and education is what produces those skills.
“As such we need to open and continue to teach our young people because if we kill education, we kill our country.
“Yes COVID-19 is here, but we have been told by experts that COVID-19 is under control and the president has approved the fact that we want to open,” she said.
Standard 8 exams will be conducted from September 30 to October 2 while Form 4 exams will be held from October 22 to November 30.
The Ministry has also designed a new school calendar for 2021. The first term will start on January 4 and end on March 26, the second from April 12 to July 2, 2021 while the third will run from July 19 to October 18.
“All these terms will run for 12 weeks which will all have two weeks holiday. Legally, a school year must have 190 days, but as you can see the next year calendar will have 180 days, which means we will only lose 10 days which is not so bad.
“However, after the closure of the third term next year, we will have another term to run from October 18 to December 20. This will help us make up for the time lost,” she said.
The Ministry has also developed an extra term for 2021 which will run from September 7 to December 18 to make up for the time lost.
Several initiatives have been put in place to fight the spread of the virus while schools are open.
For example, government has distributed MK2 billion to schools which is aimed at training of staff and communities and production of hygienic materials like masks.
Dr John Phuka, Co-chairperson of the presidential taskforce on COVID-19 said Malawi is making notable success in the fight against the pandemic which has necessitated the reopening of schools.
These include notable strides in communication, infection prevention, care, coordination and observing hygienic practices like washing hands and social distancing.
He said cases in Malawi being recorded have stabilized and will hopefully continue to decline.
“For example, in July 2020, we recorded 2,724 cases which resulted in 104 deaths, while with a few days to go before the end of August we have recorded 1,255 cases with 49 deaths. We hope the numbers will continue to decline too.
“However, there is need to continue observing all recommended regulations to make sure the numbers keep going down,” he said.
As of Thursday evening there were 22 new cases that were registered from 295 tests that recorded no new death but 36 new recoveries.
The situation report by Dr. Phuka says all new cases are locally transmitted infections — 7 from Blantyre, 6 from Mzimba North, 3 from Nkhotakota, 2 each from Lilongwe and Mchinji and one each from Chitipa and Karonga.
Cumulatively, Malawi has recorded 5,496 cases including 173 deaths and of these cases, 1,098 are imported infections and 4,398 are locally transmitted.
Cumulatively, 3,121 cases have now recovered bringing the total number of active cases to 2,202.
The country has so far conducted 43,798 COVID-19 tests in 45 COVID-19 testing sites.
Dr. Phuka keeps reminding the public that there is need to promptly inform the health authorities by calling toll free line 54747 or 929 whenever one experiencing COVID-19 symptoms such as fever, cough, flu, shortness of breath, loss of taste or smell and tiredness.
“This will help the to identify the disease in early stage and appropriate care will be given to improve the disease outcome.
“Similarly, those that are primary contacts of the confirmed cases are supposed to contact the health authorities for further assessment and advise.”—Additional reporting by Duncan Mlanjira