To close or to keep Malawi's schools open

Children in school

COVID-19 is more than just a public health crisis. It affects all spheres of life.

Among its impacts, the pandemic poses a devastating threat to access to education, in constrained nations such as Malawi, which struggles to cope with the deepening crisis.

COVID-19 has exposed chronic underfunding and neglected inequalities that limit access to higher education in the country.

In March 2020, as preventive measures kicked in, the Government of Malawi prematurely closed schools for five months, an agonizingly suspenseful recess for the learners.

However, some private schools, deemed a preserve of the rich, swiftly switched to online platforms to keep delivering lessons.

With more than 70 percent of learners in Malawi depending on public schools, it meant over seven out of every ten learners across the country were left out and behind because public schools, where a majority of Malawian children go, did not have the capacity for effective and equitable online learning.

Only the Catholic University of Malawi and the DMI-St John the Baptist University completed their academic calendars and obligations via remote learning while students in public universities lost a year.

The learners left behind are still struggling to catch up with their peers.

As education access and quality were already uneven before the pandemic, the emergency has worsened these inequalities.

This disruption will have far-reaching consequences on learners’ chances in life, including employment prospects, economic potential, human rights and mental wellbeing.

The social integration of the youth in these spaces was already negligible before Covid-19 arrived in the country in April 2020.

The resurgent pandemic disproportionately affects the youth, particularly young women and minorities from low-income households.

As the country fights a deadlier second wave of COVID-19, schools have been closed again with no likelihood of reopening until infections drop dramatically.

Despite the second disruption in teaching and learning, as was the case in the first, much of life in Malawi has remained somewhat normal: Public transport remain active, congested and dominated by unmasked commuters as traffic police look on; the nationwide ban on large gatherings has failed to halt weddings, funerals and religious meetings; and bars are allowed to operate from 2-8pm for socio-economic reasons while those in populous townships and rural settings still operate day and night.

Does COVID-19 spread faster in learning institutions than the neglected super-spreaders?

Without undermining government efforts to protect learners and Malawi’s youthful majority, this is the big question.

Currently, there is no scientific evidence that education institutions have been hit harder by the virus, which has claimed over 1, 000 lives in Malawi. Students have largely been spared.

Besides, there is no indication that students are safer home than in school. The previous emergency school closure revealed that the ‘idle’ students leave home to socialise and mingle with their community members, exposing themselves and their populations to COVID-19 transmission. This undermines school closures as a preventive measure.

A year has passed since the discovery of the pandemic in China, so there is more information and experience to help us handle the crisis better. With viable alternatives, wouldn’t it be prudent for schools to remain open? Perhaps yes and here is why;

The shutdown will cause more harm than good and the time they are losing at home is irredeemable.

The break will further raise dropout rates due to teen pregnancies and child marriages which surged alarmingly during the five-month school closure last year. The official figures—over 40,000 pregnancies and 13,000 marriages involving underage girls—show the downside of school shutdowns as other social gatherings continue.

Keeping the youth in school will reduce silent social problems, including child abuse and violence against women and girls.

After all, when schools reopened between October 2020 and January 2021, they did not record major coronavirus outbreaks—save for Lilongwe Girls Secondary School in the capital city. This perhaps testifies to the fast response and strict preventive measures in schools which required all learners to mask up and strategically placed water buckets and soap for handwashing at the entrance of every building.

Even with the advent of the second wave, there is no data on record to suggest the re-opening altered the statistics drastically.

With everything we know about the virus now, as risky interactions continue in communities where the students live all day-long, keeping schools open could have more benefits than dangers.

*Nebert Chirwa is a Malawi youth activist. This article is part of Oxfam in Southern Africa Covid-19 One Year Anniversary Opinion and Commentary Series. The views expressed in this post are those of the authors and in no way reflect those of Oxfam.