Maputo — The Mozambican Ministry of Education has promised that no school will be allowed to reopen, if it does not possess a water supply.
All schools, from creches to universities, have been closed for more than three months because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The government is now moving cautiously towards a phased re-opening of schools, and this has generated a great deal of controversy.
The division is between those who want to re-open schools immediately, pointing out how damaging a lengthy delay will be to children's education, and those who say that re-opening the schools now will threaten children's health.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, the National Director of School Health and Nutrition, Arlinda Chaquisse, agreed that schools that re-open must provide the basic measures to combat the spread of Covid-19.
The key hygiene measure is the washing of hands with soap and water. Soap molecules annihilate all viruses they contact, by destroying the coating of fat around the virus core. But many Mozambican schools do not have a reliable source of water, let alone soap.
But Chaquisse was clear. "No school will restart its classes if it does not have water", she said. "We have to put this on the table, because the key element for preventing Covid-19 is the availability of water".
She said the Education Ministry envisages an independent assessment to determine whether conditions are right for a resumption of classes.
"This process will be continual", she said. "Even when the pupils return, we must have very strong monitoring, so that we can draw conclusions, improve matters, and guarantee that other levels of education can resume classes".
Chaquisse said the Ministry has been systematically assessing the existing conditions, and recognises the enormous challenges posed by questions of hygiene and sanitation. She said the Education and Health Ministries are working together to define the essential aspects that must be taken into account in order to guarantee the basic minimum of safe conditions in the schools.
A huge problem is overcrowdings. "We must plan the restructuring of our classes, since we know they contain a large number of pupils. We shall reorganise the classes to guarantee social distancing. We are saying the classes will have an average of 25 pupils each".
That number, however, is only for the proposed first phase of reopening, covering just pre-university classes (12th grade of secondary education).
Chaquisse said one of the proposals her Ministry has made is that, after the re-opening, any school where cases of Covid-19 are diagnosed must close again immediately, to safeguard the health of the other pupils and the staff.
Where a pupil displays possible symptoms of Covid-19 (such as fever, a dry cough and headaches), the Ministry proposes that he or she should be isolated at once, and a health unit contacted to test the pupil for coronavirus.
Chaquisse added thatbthe Education Ministry is consulting the National Teachers' Union (ONP) and civil society bodies, to gather proposals from them in order that the resumption of classes can be done safely.