By Musu Kuta Komma-Bah
The way we live, work, and learn has changed dramatically during the past 19 months due to the Covid-19 pandemic. People live with uncertainty about what the future holds, resulting in fear and isolation, and children seem to be among the most vulnerable group, considering the large scale in which this pandemic has affected them.
As reports continue to suggest a rise in Covid-19 cases, and our children here in The Gambia have return to school, the country could face an extended period of disruption in children’s education.
When schools were shut down for months last year, it was clearly expected that the closures will cause major disruptions to children’s education globally.
According to UNESCO, 188 countries ordered closures, affecting over 1.7 billion children. In The Gambia, according to the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education tens of thousands of school children were affected by the pandemic and its related effects. The closures began in March when the government declared a state of public health emergency. All schools were initially closed for 21 days, and later extended indefinitely. It went on for over six months before they finally reopened.
The Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education must be commended for conducting community outreach programmes through six Regional Education Directorates using cluster monitors and itinerant teachers to sensitize students, teachers, parents, School Management Committees, Mother Clubs, and various stakeholders in their respective communities on Covid-19 guidelines and preventions prior to the reopening of schools after the long unintended break. The Minister also visited, in person, Regions 4,5&6 in the rural part of the country to gather first-hand knowledge of the state of learning facilities after prior to the schools re-opening.
Yes, the government in partnership with development partners such as ChildFund, did facilitate online classes for children during the lock down and closures, but questions remain. Was this intervention enough to keep children where they ought to be in terms of their academic performance? Who were the most affected by the closures in terms of geographical location and demography, and how much have they benefitted from the online classes? And how were children compensated for the closures?
These are pertinent questions.
While there may be little available data to answer them, access to materials used in the online classes was a privilege to many school children, hence, most of them could not follow the online classes, and the most affected are children living in rural communities who have limited access to electricity to watch the lectures on television.
What is undisputable is that the closures have affected children immensely as far as their education is concerned. The right to go to school and learn is central to every child’s development, safety, and well-being. Our children and youth cannot afford any more disruptions to their education, which is why we must support schools to ensure they reopen safely as soon as possible and get education back on track. Especially for a country and continent that has lagged in achieving global education goals, we cannot afford any more closures.
According to UNESCO, Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest out-of-school rates in the world. Over one-fifth of children between the ages of six and 11 are out of school, followed by one-third of youth between the ages of 12 and 14, while almost 60% of youth between the ages of 15 and 17 are not in school.
In the Gambia, a joint study by the Ministry of Education and UNICEF published in 2017 reveals over 48 percent of children are out of school.
These statistics are a wakeup call to duty bearers, because education is a major priority if we are to achieve the SDGs and have a productive future generation. Even worse, when children are not in school, they are at a greater risk of being exposed to abuse, neglect, and violence.
While education is important, schools must remain safe to limit the risk of Covid-19 infections among children and their families when they reopen. First, there is need to ensure that comprehensive hygiene and sanitation measures to keep children and staff safe and stop the spread of Covid-19. To protect children from diseases such as Covid-19, we must ensure equitable access to clean water, proper sanitation, and hygiene practices. Now that schools have reopened, all Early Childhood Development Centers, primary and secondary schools should be provided with adequate hygiene and sanitation facilities including regular and readily accessible clean and safe piped water, taking into consideration the population in every school.
In this regard, ChildFund The Gambia is supporting schools to ensure they reopen safely by providing them with hand wash stations, detergents, face masks and hand sanitizers, as well as facemasks for children and teachers. We also provided clean tap water and solar powered boreholes, as well as improved toilet facilities to both schools and homes of children in our intervention communities.
In addition to providing adequate hygiene and sanitation facilities, I call on the Ministry of Health to prioritize vaccinating all teachers across the country, once frontline health workers and other high-risk populations are vaccinated. This will help protect teachers from the virus and allow them to teach in peace and in safer environments, ultimately keeping schools open and enabling learning, growth, and development.