Friday, September 25, 2020

Is the Education ministry overreacting to a rather normal situation?

If the latest media reports that the Ministry of Education and Skills Development (ME&SD) intends to close schools in winter as from next year onwards are true, it makes one wonder if they are not overreacting to a rather normal situation.

Winter has always been a part of our region’s four seasons of the year; it is not a new thing.
Neither has our winter become any colder than it used to be. Some unusually cold spells during a few days in winter do occur sometimes. However, these are few and far in between to warrant a drastic measure such as disrupting the whole schooling calendar.

In fact, winter is the best time in our country to conduct classes. Grab any tourist guide literature about Botswana and you will without doubt learn that our winter season is normally mild to warm, and extremely very cold temperatures are a rare occurrence.

Also, within the country winter temperatures vary with the south being colder than the north. One wonders if this ‘Winter Policy’ is going to be national ÔÇô ‘one size-fits-all’ kind of thing or only affect select regions? It is not unusual in southern Botswana and parts of the central district for temperatures to dip below zero at night and within 24 hours rise beyond 22 degrees Celsius (in some places 26 degrees) during the day.

Given this scenario, it is evident that the ME&SD’s decision to close schools in winter will be unnecessary or a miscalculation that will cause undue administrative problems. Instead I propose two simple, and potentially easily implementable, solutions to the perceived problem:
Instead of closing schools during winter, schools should start later say at 8:00am or 9:00am when it is warm and dismiss around 15:00 when it is still warm.

Change the dress code for school children to suit the winter weather.
Starting school later is an administrative matter that does not require tampering with the school calendar and the education policy. Occasionally when the weather is really bad, it is then that schools could be closed for a day or two.

In fact, in Western countries where it is by far much colder than our winter here, their schools run during their extremely cold winter, where temperatures can remain slightly above freezing for days and hover around 2 degrees Celsius for months.

They may close schools only when the weather is very bad, like when it is heavily snowing, etc. Interestingly their schools are closed in summer when the weather is very warm and nice for outdoor activities. Actually, we should be the ones closing our schools in summer instead, when it is very hot and children are often drowsy in overcrowded classrooms. Surely under such circumstances the situation is unsuitable for learning. Also, exposure to the sun in our region is known to predispose people to skin cancer.

It has been said repeatedly in our media that skin cancer is on the increase, and the Ministry of Health often diligently educates us every summer to stay indoors or use umbrellas and hats during the day. And yet we have never heard of any amputees due to frost bite in this country.
Clearly there is more reason for us to close schools longer in summer than waste valuable time in winter when it is conducive for children to learn. Not only that, we will also be teaching our children a bad ethic, that when the weather gets a little bit nasty, and yet not life threatening, they have to stay indoors.

Not only will later start times at school help our children avoid the occasional frosty morning, but that there are more benefits to the child starting later than too early. Research in the USA, cited on MSNBC 10/06/2010 shows that starting classes later helps adolescents ‘earn better grades, get along better with their peers, gain control over their emotions, steer clear of drugs, avoid depression and even lower their risk of suicide’.

Children also get to sleep longer and therefore get enough rest for the next day’s demands. The same article indicates that children need at least nine and a quarter hours of sleep. But if they have to go to bed at 10pm after doing their homework and a bit of reading and have to be up by 5am to catch the earliest combi to school that leaves them with only seven hours of sleep.
Probably that implies our kids are sleep deprived because of rising too early. Perhaps this partly explains why in Africa we strain ourselves so much and the developed countries are somewhat relaxed in the way they do things and yet we fail to catch up with them.

It is not only the amount of time children spend at school that matters, but the quality of teaching and the learning environment that are of greater significance.

With regard to the dress code, retailers could be encouraged to stock thermal underwear (vests and long Johns), insulated hand gloves and woolly hats for kids.

It boggles the mind to find that all along school children have been forbidden to wear jackets to school other than some funny track suit tops by the Ministry and schools’ authorities who themselves often come to work overdressed in ski jackets suitable for arctic weather.
Also, schools in the extreme south of the country (or wherever necessary) could be encouraged to raise funds to install heaters for use during cold weather.
These are simple solutions that I think could save the ME&SD the unnecessary hassle of having to tamper with the school calendar.

Dr Phirinyane is a Research Fellow at BIDPA. The views advanced in this article do not in any way represent the position of BIDPA.

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