The challenges presented by the coronavirus to society’s daily grind are emerging startling clear, like a rainbow albeit without beautiful colors.
One area highly affected by this pandemic is education. At the peak of lockdowns worldwide, surveys estimated that at least 1.7 billion students had stopped attending school. Some countries have relaxed lockdowns, but the number of students affected is still high. Education has been brutally affected because the system relies on brick and mortar institutions attending lessons in physical buildings.
Few had the understanding that this routine would undergo unprecedented shifts and as such, few were well-prepared. Now, we do not know when it will be safe for our young people to gather again in classrooms and how this will be implemented post-COVID-19. When the government reviews its decisions on school closures and openings, we do not know the level of trust parents and guardians will have in releasing students.
As the second school term should have been in full swing by now, schools in towns and cities have adopted an e-learning model, and parents are adopting homeschooling as a solution. Teachers are being resourceful and creating models with WhatsApp groups, Zoom meetings, and other e-learning tools. E-learning and homeschooling are certainly not substitutes for actually attending lessons, but they certainly can keep students abreast of studies and preparations for important public examinations.
The challenges, however, lie in rural Zimbabwe. Can e-learning and homeschooling tools be used to help keep students current with their school work and commitments? Unfortunately, rural students are in difficult quagmire. District councils, private telecommunications companies, and government ministries did not put in place enough infrastructure to create an environment that can foster e-learning in rural schools and institutions.
To begin with, most rural schools and institutions do not have electricity. This means these schools do not have basic techniques and cannot teach students how to use computers. In fact, teachers themselves do not have computers, as no investment has been made to buy them. Teachers struggle to charge phones or must travel long distances to charge phones, in part resulting in many well-qualified teachers not taking up positions in rural schools. Thus, most schools are understaffed.
For example, in Hlanganani, a village under Chief Mvutu in Matebeleland North near Victoria Falls, Mizpah Primary School has not had electricity since a transformer was hit by lightning more than eight years ago. Villagers’ pleas to various government officials have not led to any action by local councilors. Students and teachers have suffered the most. The eight years are a missed opportunity for pupils to learn important ICT skills. One wonders if this transformer had been hit in an affluent part of Zimbabwe whether the problem would have been solved within six months.
Unfortunately, this school is a catchment school for many villages, and as such, the lack of electricity is a terrible disservice to our young people. Of the three Wifi network providers in Zimbabwe, two can be accessed in this area, but with limited bandwidth. One has to use 2G to receive online services in many parts of the villages. The cost of obtaining smartphones is simply out of reach for most students and their families. For those who obtain phones, the price of data is a huge challenge, making e-learning platforms essentially inaccessible.
Homeschooling in rural areas is a challenge because of myriad other reasons, such as the seemingly endless domestic chores young people face — herding cattle or fetching firewood and water, sometimes from a long distance. Unfortunately, in our patriarchal society, girls face additional obstacles to cooking and washing clothes and dishes. With no decent lighting to use at night, studying after dark is not a viable option. As the food security challenges grow, more and more young people have to prepare gardens near boreholes and spend most of their time making sure the vegetables do not dry up in our hot temperatures.
Most parents and guardians do not complete grade seven or high school; some believe that as long as a child can read and write their name, that will suffice. Those who believe in the value of education might struggle to understand the requirements of a new syllabus, be out of their depth on how to teach or help their children, or might not police enough children to make homeschooling effective.
All this is why social protective systems such as mentors, clubs, and community champions can help make parents and students understand the perilous situation they face if they sideline education and value chores over learning. Community champions and mentors can help students with notes, with access to data by sharing knowledge, and by meeting one-on-one or in small groups that respect social distancing.
In my work as a mentor for a number of girl clubs, I have had clarion calls by students, both girls, and boys, that they want to learn and are worried about their futures and whether they will do well if examinations take place. They see their environment as a stumbling block. Most girls have benefited from a program we run with the Global Sojourns Giving Circle, which pays for examination fees for all the Form 4 students in our clubs. This year, we managed to pay for 15 girls who otherwise would have struggled to pay the fee. Now, most of them are worried that this opportunity might pass them by, just when their futures were beginning to appear bright with an opportunity to stop the vicious cycle of poverty.
Unfortunately, developing an e-learning culture and environment is not going to be a walk in the park. It is not a one-day investment. Rather, serious money must be invested in rural education in Zimbabwe with the private sector and government working together.
In the meanwhile, however, what will happen to the generation of young people in rural areas left behind? This is indeed a challenging time, even as the national Sustainable Development Goals in this decade of action for Agenda 2030 and Agenda 2063 call for no one to be left behind.