Tanzania: Protecting Education in the Face of Covid-19

The motorcycle taxi navigates the rocky path that leads to Victoria Primary School in Malimbe Mwanza, after some minutes we are there and my fixer and I are welcomed to the school by a security guard who was manning the gate. Inside, children are playing being the third day since schools reopened after a 3-month break, which came as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The sudden break came as a surprise to many children and during the long break they faced numerous challenges.

While part of Article 11 of the African Charter on rights and Welfare of the Child states that "Every child has the right to an education, to develop his or her personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential," this could not be the case due to Covid-19 pandemic, which basically made access to education for all sections of the community including children impossible as the government worked hard to stop the spread.

We meet Mr Nicholas Method and Mr Isaac Kassim who welcomes us and explain some of the challenges disruption of education had on children.

"After a child stays at home for a longer time, it becomes hard to get them back to where they were because that connection is lost. You notice that for some even their language mastery has gone down. This means teachers have to start afresh with them," Mr Kassim says.

He explains that this disruption has a big mental effects on children as they unlearn a lot of things when they are away from school and in one way or the other not connected to their teachers. Usually they are guided by their teachers on day to day basis.

"It is just the first week and we have noted some behavioral change as well," Mr Kassim pointed out.

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"While some parents did a good job in staying and guiding their children, some others did not spend much of the time with their children and left them alone to watch television programmes without parental control. And I cannot lay the blame on the parents because they had to leave home early to go and fend for their families," says Mr Method.

"You see in the past, they would spend eight hours in school but this time, they were all alone and would interact with all manner of people hence picking different behaviors. These behavioral change can have negative effect on their education," Mr Method stated.

Yacinta Joseph, 30, is a parent of two children and a teacher at Kibungio Secondary School in Mwanza. She says her children have been mentally affected because even with the recent opening of schools, they are still afraid that they might contract coronavirus.

"My children are saying they are afraid to go to school because there is coronavirus, they have forgotten some of the things they leant though their school was sending bi-weekly assignments but I noticed a lot of unlearning had taken place. Children are back to school but you see they are disoriented, the work which we sent were not done," she says. According to Ms Joseph, it was even worse for some children who would benefit from feeding programmes in other schools.

"Those from low income homes suffered a lot because at home they could not get the meals as they use to at school and this not only affected them mentally but it negatively impacted their health as well."

Ms Joseph also pointed out that the added school time will only make children more exhausted mentally and physically.

"The announcement was sudden without psychological counselling of the children on why they are going home and for how long they will stay at home."

Demetria Mahatane, a teacher at Grace Primary School in Kigamboni Dar es Salaam reiterated that a lot of unlearning has taken place and it is like they have to start teaching children most of the subjects afresh. "The children have forgotten most of the things and even the holiday assignment that we gave out did not help because most of the children were not guided by their parents thus they did not complete the homework," she stated.

Assistant director of secondary education in Misungwi District in Mwanza Region, Serema Kowelo says challenges which many pupils and students faced during the Covid-19 pandemic is that some parents would leave their business enterprises like shops for their children to oversee, this led to a situation where some would be abused sexually.

"For some parents, long stay at home for children was viewed as cheap labour as they would leave them to operate their small businesses like attending to shops not knowing that they were exposing them to sexual abuse and exploitation."

And for children whose parents teach in private schools, the impact of the long break was worse according to the Secretary General of the Tanzania Private School's Teachers Union (TPTU) Julius Mabula.

"Some teachers in private school went without pay for three months, others were suspended while some had to take pay cuts. This means some were evicted from their houses by the landlords and some could not provide basic needs to their families. You can imagine what psychological impact this had on their children," he says.

"Employers knew that this coronavirus could stay longer ,so instead of incurring debts, they terminated teachers' contracts without following the proper legal process," he says adding that some teachers had to relocate to upcountry with their families.

"As a union, we wrote a letter to the government to intervene on the plight of private school teachers," he says.

Janeth Ngowi, 28, a petty trader in snacks based in Mwanza city stated that the biggest challenge she faced during the long break occasioned by Covid-19 pandemic was that her two children were disoriented and kept on asking her unending questions on why they are not going to school. "I have two children, one is in standard Six and another one in Standard Two, the youngest one kept on asking when they would return to school and as a parent, I could see an element of desperation in the child."

Matata Nfumani, a resident of Ilemela in Mwanza stated that children faced a lot of challenges during the long break and afterwards. During the break, they could not get support to continue with their studies as they could not access their teachers and study guides leading to wastage.

"When they returned to school, they realized that there is work overload as teachers are trying to make it for the time lost during the pandemic," he pointed out.

Neema Michael,34, a business woman in Kariakoo, Dar es salaam says as a mother, she could not provide for her three children and life became difficult during the Covid-19 pandemic.

"After the closure of various activities, we faced the challenge of declining business due to a complete lack of customers. That is, it could have taken a whole day to find one customer, imagine going home to your children empty handed in the evening, "says Neema Michael, a beauty shop owner.

Magdalena Soji, 29, a resident of Mbezi Dar es salaam said after the government closed the school because of the coronavirus, it was difficult to prevent children from going to play and they say self-isolation and social distancing as a sort of punishment. "My child would be very dull as she wondered why she could no longer be allowed to play with her peers. It was much later that most children started to understand more about coronavirus and adapt to their realities," he stated.

Halima Juma, a student at Azimio Primary School in Mwanza, said she was very happy with the opening of the school because during the long holidays she was so lonely.

"When I heard that we were opening school, I was very happy, because at home, we were not allowed to play with our classmates or visit relatives, "said Halima

Mental Health Physician from Sekou-Toure Regional Referral Hospital Dr Lucas Mwangata says children need to be prepared psychologically for any change.

"Sudden change can affect children if they are not mentally prepared, parents and the community need to play a role in preparing children for any change. At one point they were going to school then suddenly the schools closed indefinitely."

To overcome these challenges, Mr Method suggested that the government should improve the online system of education and ensure that even remote areas have connections. "This way, education will go on undisrupted even in the face of challenges like Covid-19 pandemic."

Ms Mahatane on her part proposed that parents should not leave everything to teachers. "They should not leave the parental role to teachers, they should participate in classroom activities to know progress of their children, this way there won't be too much disconnect when children stay longer at home," she concludes.

On his parting shot Mr Mabula pointed out the need for basic education emergency response plan. "The Ministry of Education, parents, teachers and all stakeholders have the responsibility of advocating for quality education based on the legal instruments that Tanzania is signatory to and intervention measures in case of emergency."

The author is Women in News Alumni.

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