In the aftermath of the COVID-19 first report in Ethiopia back in March 2020, the Ethiopian government shut down schools and universities as part of its measures to partially lockdown the country to contain the virus. Many schools in the capital Addis Abeba and elsewhere were subsequently converted into centers for returnee Ethiopians and others who should quarantine for two weeks upon entry. And in the aftermath the June 29 assassination of Oromo artist Hachalu Hundesa, many schools were converted into holding centers by the government to detain thousands suspected of inciting violence. Now, preparations are underway to reopen schools despite a surge in COVID-19. Is Ethiopia ready?
BY SIYANNE MEKONNEN @SIYAANNE
Addis Abeba, September 21/2020 – At the 5th round 3rd emergency meeting held by the House of People’s Representatives of Ethiopia on September 18, 2020, the Ministry of Health (MoH) recommended the reopening of schools. During the meeting, the MoH presented a report on the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and recommendations for the next steps.
According to the report, sexual harassment and early marriage are on the rise in connection with the closure of schools. Therefore, considering the requirements set by the World Health Organization (WHO) and meeting the necessary precautions, the report includes recommendations to open schools with respect to the local situation around each school.
The Minister of Health, Dr. Lia Tadesse, said that a task force that foresees the implementation of the guidelines needs to be set up at every school. The MoH also urged the state to enforce the compulsory wearing of masks and physical distancing to be enforced.
THE NEED FOR CREATING A PUBLIC AWARENESS AND CLEANING OF SCHOOLS COMPOUNDS USED FOR QUARANTINING STATIONS BEFORE THE RESUMPTION OF CLASSES WAS SUGGESTED BY THE WOMEN, CHILDREN AND SOCIAL AFFAIRS AND PERMANENT COMMITTEE OF LAW, JUSTICE AND DEMOCRACY AFFAIRS
The need for creating a public awareness and cleaning of schools compounds used for quarantining stations before the resumption of classes was suggested by the Women, Children and Social affairs and permanent committee of law, justice and democracy affairs while discussing over the recommendations presented to the parliament by the MoH. Additionally, the State Minister of Health, Seharla Abdullahi, pointed out the contribution of universities to safe reopening of schools by manufacturing masks and sanitizers. The Ministry of Education says that the government is completing preparations prior to reopening of schools. The government will provide masks, sanitizers and hand washing facilities in all public schools. There is an ongoing discussion on how to safely reopen higher education institutions as well.
As countries around the world begin easing down restrictions after the lockdown, the reopening of schools has sparked a huge public debate in many countries. As of the first week of April 2020, UNESCO reported that 1.6 billion learners (nearly 9 out of 10 children) are forced out of school. After a large discussion, countries around the world have adapted different mechanisms to ensure the continuation of learning. These mechanisms have worked in some countries and have backfired in others.
The announcement made by Ethiopian Ministry of Education came amidst the surge of daily confirmed new cases of Coronavirus at the end of August 2020. The announcement has created confusion and fear among many, especially among parents. Addis Standard has spoken with the school community following the abrupt decision of the government to begin registrations.
In Ethiopia, three days after the first case was recorded on March 13, 2020, the office of the Prime Minister announced that schools, sporting events, and public gatherings shall be suspended for 15 days. Since then, schools have been closed and more than 26 million pre-primary, primary, secondary, and tertiary-level learners from over 47,000 schools are staying at home. Efforts have been made to carry on learning remotely via TV, radio and online platforms. Approximately 5.2 million primary and secondary school children have been reached throughout the country via distance learning programs led by the government of Ethiopia with the support of UNICEF and partners.
These mechanisms of teaching are obviously skewed in the favor of urban and mostly economically privileged students. There are also many primary and secondary school children in Ethiopia with special educational needs, who may not benefit equally from remote learning. Most parents whom Addis Standard has talked to are ambivalent about the effectiveness of remote learning. Alternatively, some of the government schools that Addis Standard spoke to are more optimistic about the effectiveness of remote learning. Sisiay Alemu, the principal of Menelik Secondary School, expressed his assurance in the effectiveness of remote learning in that their school had gotten overwhelming feedback and comments from over 700 students in the telegram groups created for nearly 2000 students in the school.
In the government schools that Addis Standard has visited, they had their students engaged in learning mostly via Telegram channels where different teaching materials in the form of short notes, teachers’ recording of lecture in audios and videos were sent out. In addition, textbooks and worksheets had been distributed to students for them to study at home. Mr. Solomon Kibe, the principal of Dej. Wondirad Primary School told Addis Standard that remote learning had been applicable to students of 5th grade and above and that students with special needs were no exception.
Countries around the world have cautiously reopened schools with mixed results. Some European countries have cited children’s right to education as the motive behind their decision to re-open schools. A WHO survey of 39 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa found that schools are fully open in only six countries. They are closed in 14 countries and partially open (exam classes) in 19 others. Late August 2020, WHO and UNICEF recommended safe school reopening in Africa. Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa emphasized the value of education in the lives of the youth and the negative socioeconomic impact of school shutdown on children.
IN MANY COUNTRIES, THE REOPENING OF SCHOOLS WAS DONE GRADUALLY. THEY BEGAN WITH LOWER GRADES THEN PROCEEDED TO HIGHER GRADES IN THE FOLLOWING WEEKS
In many countries, the reopening of schools was done gradually. They began with lower grades then proceeded to higher grades in the following weeks. Some countries like Israel that opened schools prematurely, were forced to close down schools after students, teachers and staff tested positive for COVID-19. However, what most countries have in common is that the decision to reopen schools was made after an extensive discussion on a national level. Dr. Matshidiso Moeti of WHO also suggested that decisions must be guided by a thorough risk analysis to ensure the safety of children, teachers and parents.
In most countries, including the United States opening schools amidst the pandemic has been expensive. Some of the steps the countries have taken are mandatory masks wearing, thermo screening, decreasing class capacity, prioritizing vulnerable students, holding outdoor classes and free testing are when reopening their schools. Others have decided to stick to remote learning until they are able to contain the spread of the virus while some have adopted “hybrid models” where some classes are conducted online and the rest are done through in-person learning.
In Ethiopia, the decision to reopen schools came just weeks after the Ministry of Education (MoE) made an announcement forbidding private schools from holding registrations before the end of August 2020. Earlier in May, the MoE said that it has formed a team that studies safe ways to restart schools across the nation when the country manages to contain COVID-19. The spokesperson Haregua WoldeMichael said that the outcome of the study would be key factor in devising detailed plans to reopen primary schools, adding “the research will take a long period of time”.
THE SCHOOLS AND PARENTS Addis Standard TALKED TO SAID THAT THERE WERE NEITHER ANY CONSULTATION WITH PARENTS OR THE SCHOOLS PRIOR TO THE DECISION NOR WERE THERE ANY OFFICIAL WRITTEN STATEMENTS OTHER THAN THE ONE MADE THROUGH MASS MEDIA
The hasty decision to reopen schools doesn’t seem thoroughly discussed among all key stakeholders. The schools and parents Addis Standard talked to said that there were neither any consultation with parents or the schools prior to the decision nor were there any official written statements other than the one made through mass media. We have learnt that the decision to begin registration was only applicable to private schools but not government schools.
Government schools were told to carry out “pre-registration” paperwork while private schools were told to begin registration promptly. In the government schools Addis Standard visited, the MoE was conducting surveys on government schools and discussing with the schools’ communities how to safely resume schools. A recent survey revealed that 74% of schools in urban areas and 87% in rural areas in Ethiopia do not have any hand washing facilities.
The President of the Association of Private Schools, Abera Tassew, told Addis Standard that the decision to begin registrations was made after a unilateral discussion between MoE and the association of private schools. He said that they were told to carry out registrations first and that they will be notified of necessary guidelines of school reopening later on. One of the private schools in Addis Abeba, Hillside School carried out registrations putting all the necessary safety guidelines in place. The administration and finance officer of Hillside School Yohana GebreEgzaiber told us that entrance exams were held with 6 students per class. It is possible to carry out registrations safely but the question remains if the same will be true for resuming classes.
Abera told Addis Standard that parents and teachers were not involved in the decision making. Contrary to what Abera said, all of the parents who spoke to Addis Standard do not think it is safe to send their children back to school just yet. Parents voiced their worries about how small the compounds and classes are. In the schools Addis Standard visited, an estimated number of 30-60 students are kept in classrooms of average width 40-50m².
Even though the date of the beginning of the school year hasn’t been announced, some private schools have set deadlines to registration dates threatening to deny registration past the deadlines. Some schools have gone on to increase school fees despite MoE’s repeated warnings to refrain from making any changes to the amount of school fee. Other schools have unusually demanded the first quarter school fee along with registration fees. Most parents are agitated by how schools have forced parents to pay 100 percent of the school fee for the remaining school year in the previous school year as opposed to the government’s announcement to make 25-50% decrement after COVID-19 hit and schools were closed.
A parent has told Addis Standard that some schools use the fact that they are international schools as “impunity”. According to the parent, a renewed school in Addis Abeba was “intimidating” parents to agree to a 20 percent increment of school fee in the coming school year. However, Abera said that the association of private schools has not encouraged the increment of school fee.
Two weeks after the announcement was made for schools to begin registrations, MoE told the Ethiopian News Agency that the ministry has conducted a study on how to safely resume classes. The State Minister of Education Million Mathewos explained the negative impact of school closures on children’s growth and cited the increased occurrences of sexual violence and early child marriages. The ministry plans on having 80 percent of students to start taking classes in shifts and build more classes and look for other options for 6 percent of students. Primary schools and secondary schools are set to decrease the capacity of classes by 24 and 19 percent respectively, meaning, classes will have 20 – 25 students per class. Million said that Oromia regional state has built 30,000 more classes and the same is being done in Amhara regional state.
Addis Standard was able to confirm that the decision to begin registrations in August was a financially motivated decision made to benefit private schools. In another interview with Sheger FM, Abera said that the rationale for carrying out registrations is because schools are struggling to pay the salaries of teachers and the school community. “Normally, schools depend on registration fees to cover salaries during the summer break.” said Abera.
Meanwhile the MoE in recent news, the Minister of Education Dr Getahun Mekuria said that school reopening will wait until the Ministry of Health confirms that it is safe to resume classes. The Ministry of Health needs to assess the stage of transmission of the virus and notify the MoE that it is safe to resume classes.
Getahun Mekuria said that in congested cities like Addis Abeba where the spread of the virus is higher, classes will be held in three shifts.
Parents admit that disruption of school has negatively affected their children but prefer if schools were opened after the virus is contained or a proper guideline for safely resuming classes is put in place. They want to be involved in the decision alongside teachers and share the responsibility of safely conducting classes with other stakeholders. The State Minister however, said that new mechanisms of learning will be introduced to ensure the safety of students and schools are going to reopen gradually.
Reopening schools before the flattening of the curve might make community transmission reach its peak and overwhelm the healthcare system. It was only on July 18 that the WHO stated that Ethiopia was one of ten African countries accounting for 88 percent of all reported COVID-19 cases in the African region and the numbers are only going up by the day. Countries like Pakistan made the decision to resume classes after the numbers of new coronavirus cases and deaths began to slow down. The UAE conducted testing for teachers before they went back to school. Such kinds of partnership between the Ministry of Health and MoE are much needed in order to ensure the containment of the virus after schools reopen. AS