Sometimes in February this year the UNICEF Chief, Henrietta Fore, released a statement in which she pointed to the “overwhelming evidence of the impact of school closures on children, and despite increasing evidence that schools are not drivers of the pandemic” some governments kept schools closed. She argued that school closures are most devastating on children since keeping children at home puts their health, development, safety, and well-being at risk – with the most vulnerable bearing the heaviest brunt. Some children do not only go to school for learning, but for some in rural areas, schools contribute to their nutrition and therefore with closed schools, children are “left hungry and their nutrition is worsening”. Without daily peer interactions and less mobility, children are “losing physical fitness and showing signs of mental distress”; and without the safety net that schools often provide, they are “more vulnerable to abuse, child marriage and child labour”.
That is why the UNICEF Chief argued that school closures should be considered “a measure of last resort”. UNICEF is so opposed to school closures that on March 3rd they put up what they called “pandemic classroom installation at the United Nations in New York” as “a powerful reminder of the global education crisis”. It read “168 empty desks. 168 unused backpacks. 168 million futures hanging in the balance”. UNICEF states that “the 168 desks and backpacks represent the 168 million children whose schools have been completely closed for nearly a year due to COVID-19. Our message to world leaders is clear: no effort should be spared to reopen schools.” That is the position of UNICEF.
Come to Botswana. For over a year now, teachers’ unions in have battled government to close schools in total contradiction of the UNICEF recommendations. Their argument has taken different shapes which we explore below briefly. They have argued that schools are not safe for children since that is where hundreds of children congregate daily – and by this logic, they contend that children in schools have a greater chance of being infected by the coronavirus. Related to this argument, their second argument is that a school is a dangerous workspace for teachers and support staff since, again, that is where hundreds of teachers and other support staff meet on school grounds to execute their duties. They argue, therefore, that such congregations increase the chances for Covid-19 infection and spread, consequently necessitating school closure. These arguments are not compelling and must be rejected forcefully.
Let us deal with the first argument. I will not spend too much time on it because it has been dispensed by UNICEF. Schools are not super-spreaders of Covid-19. There is absolutely no evidence of this, both locally and internally. The best place to see this play out is at primary school where children have challenges adhering to prescribed Covid-19 protocols. They wear their masks poorly; they do not clean their hands frequent enough before touching food and doors. They run around and play together as if the world is not in the middle of a pandemic. And yet we do not have uncontrollable cases of Covid-19 infections and children dying like flies in our primary schools. In part, it is because of the excellent immunity found in children compared to that of adults. Apart from that, it will be hard for anybody to determine the source and spread of Covid-19 in most schools. In boarding schools where children live in hostels, spread can be measured & still the source of the infection will prove difficult to ascertain.
Schools, instead of them being dangerous for children, they are safe havens. Keeping children at home puts their health, development, safety, and well-being at risk. Schools are excellent places of academic and psychological development for learners. They provide essential nutrition, especially amongst the rural poor. They provide learners with essential physical fitness in a safe environment under teacher supervision. In contact with their peers, friends, and teachers, learners experience positive mental stimulation that is devoid of stress and anxiety. Keeping children at home when parents are at work for extended periods of time exposes them to possible abuse, molestation, rape, and child labour. Some children without parental supervision run the risk of straying into malls and shopping centres, spending extended hours playing unsupervised in dangerous streets with greater exposure to Covid-19 that if they were in a controlled school environment. The school therefore remains the safest space for children during the Covid pandemic.
The second argument is the one that has been pursued most aggressively by Mr. Rari once the first argument fell on its face. He appealed to the second one – i.e. that he is pursuing the interest of the workers. Central to this contention is the argument that the workplace is not safe for workers – in this case, teachers, and therefore necessitates school closure. The unions face two challenges: (a) that schools have higher levels of Covid-19 than the communities in which they exist & therefore present a threat to the employee (b) that the coronavirus positive teachers were infected in schools and not in the shops or at their own residences.
Recently Mr. Rari informed us that of the 424 covid fatalities, 24 were teachers. The announcement made the front-page news of The Monitor. I cannot ascertain Mr. Rari’s claims. However, it is not clear what they mean. Do they mean that the 24 who died contracted the virus from the school? No evidence exists to sustain such a claim since they could have contracted the virus from a shop, a bar, at home, at a funeral, a bathroom, work etc. Are teachers more at risk from contracting Covid-19 than a nurse, a doctor, a cashier in a supermarket, a bus or combi driver or a bank teller?
Covid-19 protocols are clear. All persons must always (1) wear masks in the workplace and in public (2) social distance (3) sanitize or wash hands with soap water. In the case of schools, this includes the provision of ample ventilation in classrooms. What unions must do is work with government and their members to ensure safety from Covid both on and off the school grounds. The virus does not respect the on and off job demarcation. The safety of teachers must stay paramount while the right of children to education is jealously guarded. Having served as a union president myself, the rights of workers are close to my heart. However, I am also a teacher and a parent. I teach in an institution with over 15,000 learners and around 1500 staff members.
Every day I face the risk that most teachers face in schools and yet I prefer schools opened. I follow the Covid-19 protocols in the execution of my responsibilities. One of my sons attends primary school while another is at secondary school. I am convinced that they are better off at school through the Covid storm than at home. Nurses and doctors face the Covid threat daily and so does the cashier in a supermarket, a bus or combi driver or a bank teller. There is absolutely no way that I would support the closure of clinics and hospitals, supermarkets, banks or halt public transport movement. You would think that the catastrophic loss experienced by the alcohol industry would have been a good teacher that closure is not an option.