By now, most Southern African countries have secured supplies of COVID-19 vaccines, have taken delivery of them, or have actually started rolling out national inoculation programmes.
With each passing day, there are reports of new deals being secured or of countries activating plans to vaccinate populations.
Without fail, all the rollout plans emphasise priority populations; the frontline workers and vulnerable demographics that are said to be at highest risk of contracting COVID-19.
At the same time, countries are increasingly re-opening societies and economies, albeit tentatively.
Lockdown measures are being eased, borders are being reopened, curfews are being relaxed and people are starting to venture out more and more.
A major motivation for the reopening in progress is the economic imperative. Lockdowns have hit pockets hard and people – and governments – are eager to ease some of the pressure on household incomes.
Even as these still timid efforts are being made to normalise what is decidedly an abnormal situation, the threat of a third wave of infections and deaths looms on the horizon.
The world’s still relatively nascent experience of COVID-19, in as far as experiential knowledge of viruses goes, has told us that we shall continue experiencing oscillations and waves.
In our part of the world, the winter months that are just ahead are likely to come with an increase in infections, meaning higher likelihood of deaths, which will be followed by a flattening of the curve as temperatures rise from September onwards.
That rise in temperatures, as we saw last year, will prompt many to reopen societies, which in turn could lead to a spike in infections by year-end, resulting in another round of lockdowns.
It is a viscous cycle, and only one we are starting to come to terms with.
Which is why there is a mad rush to rollout vaccinations before the winter cold sets in.
And through it all, there is anxiety among parents, guardians, students, pupils and educators about the fate of schools, colleges and universities.
In just about every case presented so far, there has been little emphasis on education when it comes to individual countries’ vaccine rollout programmes.
The lack of emphasis on vaccination and schools does not sit well with the disproportionate clamour to reopen learning institutions.
Education has been one of the biggest casualties of COVID-19, and on present evidence it shall continue to suffer for a while to come.
The World Bank tells us that COVID-related school closures could result in the current generation of pupils losing out on more than US$10 trillion in lifetime earnings because of the time already lost to the pandemic. The institution helpfully contextualises this by pointing out that the figure is the equivalent of 10 percent “of global GDP, half of the annual economic output of the United States, or twice the global annual public expenditure on primary and secondary education”.
In all, more than 1,6 billion pupils and students have missed out on some schooling over the past year.
“The relative impacts of these losses on low-income countries (LICs) are higher when measured in terms of their public investment in basic education,” says the World Bank. “LICs could lose more than three full years of their investment in basic education; high income countries stand to lose less than two years of their investment. This underscores the especially urgent need to protect investments in education in the poorest countries.
“We know that human capital investments power long run economic development. Governments and development partners need to immediately step up efforts to protect and increase investments in people.”
These are things that organisations like UNICEF and UNESCO have been screaming about for months, seemingly with people heeding the dire warnings.
“With every day that goes by, these children will fall further behind and the most vulnerable will pay the heaviest price. Governments must reopen schools better than before and ensure every child can return to school. School closures are expected to exacerbate the learning crisis that existed before the pandemic, with the most vulnerable children being the most adversely affected,” says UNICEF.
In the headlong rush to reopen societies and reopen schools, we need to see proper mainstreaming of education in COVID-19 control protocols.
For instance, governments should include teachers in the priority groups that should be vaccinated.
It does not make sense for us to be crying for a reopening of schools and yet teachers are not getting due primacy in national vaccine rollout programmes.
Secondly, governments and all other stakeholders have an important duty to ensure learning facilities are regularly disinfected, that personal protective equipment is available for educators and for those learners who cannot afford it (who are in the majority), and that soap and sanitisers are readily available at the institutions.
It is not enough to simply declare opening dates. Investment must be made in the safety of learners and educators.
Clear protocols on hygiene and social distancing need to be structured, implemented and strictly monitored.
This can mean staggering classes so that fewer learners are in a room at a time, and allowing those groups that can afford online learning to continue with those modules.
Yes, it’s expensive. But no one said it was going to be easy.
Further, governments must by now have learnt the importance of affordable digital technologies to education.
Rapid and sustainable investment in ICTs for education is needed.
The World Bank has noted that, “Recovery from COVID-19 offers the opportunity to reimagine educational systems — using technology to improve outcomes, addressing inequality, and reducing learning poverty. It has long been clear that education and schools need to change to prepare children for the future and ensure that all children are learning.
“The investments being made now in remote learning — in multimedia content, remote training and support of teachers, and remote learning assessments — can be a launchpad for more personalised ways of providing education.
“Reimagined education systems must eventually be able to individualize instruction. They should be able to provide compensatory learning to rapidly recover the learning lost to school closures or student dropout. They will need to work hard to integrate learning in the classroom and remote learning, enabling children to learn well both in school and at home.
“If they do all this, policy makers will not only be prepared to smooth interruptions in learning during this and future pandemics but also build today the education systems of the future.”
Of course, no one is saying that what the World Bank says should be taken as biblical doctrine.
But it sure does make sense as we explore sustainable options for reopening of schools in the era of COVID-19.