Repeated lockdowns due to COVID-19 leading to continuous closure of schools is impacting education in a hard way in landlocked Zimbabwe.
On the eve of International Literacy Day, which is being observed on Wednesday, experts in the Southern African country say poor children without any digital access have been without any education over the past two years.
Six-year-old Melinda Gava had just begun schooling at a public school in the capital Harare in 2020. But just days after, the COVID-19 struck the country and a lockdown was announced, leading to the closure of the school. Since then, she has not seen the classroom.
Her father, Denford Gava, 28, who was working as a driver, also lost his job as the government suspended public transport from operating.
“I now have no income to fund my child’s education. Imagine she had just started her grade one and then came COVID-19, disrupting her classes,” Gava told Anadolu Agency.
Munyaradzi Masiyiwa, a teacher, said the country’s literacy rate is bound to go down, due to the closure of schools.
Gava and his 25-year-old unemployed wife, Millicent, say they cannot afford digital education or to arrange private online lessons for their child.
Like Melinda, the COVID-19 outbreak has prevented millions of children to pursue elementary education.
According to Harare-based Zimbabwean educationist Misheck Musengi, the local literacy levels are now under heavy attack from coronavirus.
“I tell you, the longer the coronavirus stays, the more illiteracy rates the country would suffer as school-going children’s education is disrupted by repeated lockdowns meant to fight the pandemic,” Musengi told Anadolu Agency.
Literacy rate under threat
In 2014, the adult literacy rate for Zimbabwe was 88.7%, but this is under threat from coronavirus, which threatens to unleash a new generation of illiterates.
Obert Masaraure, president of the Rural Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe, blames the government for the continued onslaught on education.
“Coronavirus has forced the government to focus more on examination classes at the expense of infant classes. Learners who were due for Early Child Development in 2020 completely missed out and again they failed to learn in 2021 when they were due for grade one,” he said.
Amid unending lockdowns, Masaraure said students are being automatically promoted to the next grades without grasping concepts from previous grades.
“If this persists, literacy will drastically drop. Learners are also dropping out of school, with almost a million since the first COVID-19 lockdown,” added Masaraure.
Takavafira Zhou, president of the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe, also blamed authorities for fueling illiteracy in the face of coronavirus.
“Sadly, the Ministry of Education preferred radio and television lessons, well aware that 85% of the areas where students reside in have no radio and television frequencies. Ultimately, the program failed to take off or even reach 8% of the students,” Zhou told Anadolu Agency.
As a result, that has left students in the cold. “We certainly have a generation of condemned students who have missed so much and may not function beyond the classroom. Several of the beginners have not been provided with a foundation for learning and will certainly have challenges in reading, arithmetic and mastering even local languages,” he said.
Education turns preserve of elite
Robson Chere, secretary-general of the Rural Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe, said lockdowns turned education into a preserve of the country’s elite.
“COVID-19 brought alternative ways of learning like online lessons and private lessons. But due to economic hardships faced by many Zimbabweans, this has seen only the elite being able to access education whilst the poor and those from rural backgrounds remain disadvantaged without access to education,” Chere said.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, David Coltart, Zimbabwe’s former education minister, said it is a tragic situation that hundreds of thousands of children are being affected due to the non-availability of education.
“This government appears to have no capacity to admit the problem and so going forward this is going to have a huge impact on our country. We are only going to see the impact when the current crop of five, six, seven, eight-year-old children have to write O and A level exams in a decade,” he said.
COVID-19 affected 4.6 million students in Zimbabwe in May, according to UNICEF. The UN agency said it was stepping in with resources to accelerate digital-assisted learning.