Teachers’ unions are worried that re-opened schools may turn into Covid-19 super spreaders, with slightly more than 5 percent of the educators having been vaccinated against the virus.
Government last week ordered schools that had closed in early June this year to reopen for examination classes on Monday, 30 August 2021, while the rest of the learners are resuming classes next Monday.
The announcement came a few days after the government extended the Covid-19 induced lockdown by two weeks.
On Monday, the unions reported a low turnout among teachers and students, blaming the government for giving parents and the educators a short notice.
Just before the schools opened, the Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ) told Grazers News that a mere 5.5 percent of the teachers had received the first dose of Covid-19 vaccines while other unions warned that there was inadequate preparation for the reopening of schools.
“Out of 140 000 teachers only 7 500, or about 5.5 percent, have been vaccinated. There is virtually no fumigation taking place in schools,” said Takavafira Zhou, the PTUZ president.
Obert Masaraure, the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (ARTUZ) president, and Richard Gundani, leader of the Zimbabwe Teachers Association (ZIMTA) also voiced concern on the low number of vaccinated teachers.
In a 30 August letter addressed to the Primary and Secondary Education ministry’s permanent secretary, Tumisang Thabela, ARTUZ secretary general, Robson Chere, said teachers would not be able to attend classes.
“The government’s lack of preparedness in complying with SOP’s (Standard Operating Procedures) that have been set by WHO in dealing with Covid-19 makes it impossible for learning to resume. We would not want to be culpable in exposing teachers to the frontline without full protection,” he said.
The WHO SOPs stipulate that there must be screening facilities at school entrances, routine fumigation, adequate PPEs and effective measures to ensure social distancing.
Chere urged government to convene an urgent meeting with teachers to discuss school re-opening.
“With this lack of preparedness, schools will become hotspots and super-spreaders. Re-opening of schools should happen after a process of serious consultation and guided by scientific methods and evidence,” added Chere.
But Taungana Ndoro, the Education ministry spokesperson, admitted that government could not force teachers to vaccinate even though it was encouraging them to do so.
While vaccine take-up has improved over the months, some potential beneficiaries have shunned vaccination because of religious beliefs, scepticism towards Chinese doses and a deliberate campaign against immunisation by some influential people.
“It is suicidal and genocidal to open schools under such conditions. It would be a terrible blunder to allow 140 000 teachers, 6 million pupils and ancillary staff to conglomerate in schools without testing them,” added PTUZ’s Zhou.
Government says it will achieve 60 percent herd immunity by vaccinating 10 million people by December 2021.
Masaraure said social distancing in schools was difficult to observe, considering that most of the schools were over-enrolled.
While the government recently announced that it would ensure the vaccination of children in the 14-17 years age group, it has not availed a plan to do so once the students are back in school and it would require parents’ or guardians’ consent.
“Only the elite schools are fumigating. Achieving physical social distancing will be a nightmare since our schools are overcrowded. Zimbabwe has a shortage of 3 000 schools and the excess learners are packed in small classrooms,” said Masaraure.
Added Zimta’s Gundani: “There must not (have been) a rush in re-opening schools. We must be guided by the numbers of teachers vaccinated. At the moment the numbers are too low. At a school with 1 000 pupils, we may have 70 teachers, 20 ancillary staff and visitors. The place can therefore become a super spreader of Covid-19.”
Ndoro, however, insisted to Grazers News that students were being vaccinated and schools fumigated.
“A number of teachers have been vaccinated but MoHCC (Ministry of Health and Child Care) would have correct statistics. Vaccination is an MoHCC programme. Generally everyone is awake to the new reality of operating in a Covid19 environment,” he said.
Air Commodore Jasper Chimedza, the Health ministry permanent secretary, did not respond to a request for statistics of vaccinated teachers.
Teachers are also concerned that the money that the government says it has raised to buy personal protective equipment like face masks is a drop in the ocean.
Recently the government announced that it had set aside ZW$500 000 000 (US$588 000) to purchase personal protective equipment (PPE) for schools to ensure safe reopening.
Ndoro said there were 9 625 schools in the country. Based on the figure, it implies that each school will get ZW$51 000 (US$600).
An average a school with 1 000 pupils, 70 teachers and 20 ancillary staff members will therefore have to spend less than US$ 1 per head.
Basic PPE includes face masks, sanitizers, fumigation chemicals and thermometers.
A face mask produced using linen costs US$3 while a bottle of sanitiser costs about US$4 on average. A thermometer costs about US$50.
Working with a budget for a single school of 1 100 face masks, 100 sanitizer bottles and 10 thermometers, the cost would be US$ 4 200, which is well below the US$600 that each school would receive from the government, if at all, given failures in the past to avail promised money.
Ndoro said the money would come from treasury but did not indicate when.