The COVID-19 pandemic caused school closures globally, including most countries in Africa, resulting in major disruptions to education. Many countries have made great strides in safely reopening schools to improve access to equitable and quality education, to arrest the escalation of risks to children’s mental and physical health, and to mitigate the long-term impact of learning loss associated with school closures.
The KIX Observatory on COVID-19 Responses in Educational Systems recently produced a synthesis report on School Reopening in Africa during the COVID-19 pandemic in 40 African partner countries of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) to inform decision-makers, partners, and education practitioners with emerging evidence on education policy and practice responses to the pandemic.
The report uses a gender, equity, and inclusion lens to analyse policies and practices in terms of the following:
- Existing decision-making frameworks and approaches to school reopening.
- Campaigns to get learners back to school.
- Health issues related to school reopening and orientations
- How countries have adapted their teaching, learning, and assessment strategies and approaches.
From the analysis, the report identifies common challenges facing safe reopening of schools, highlights some emerging evidence, and provides key recommendations for action by GPE partner countries and supporting actors.
Post-pandemic: reopening schools and getting learners back safely
Most countries developed decision-making frameworks to guide school reopening. The frameworks were essential, considering the unpredictable changing behaviour of the pandemic and the rise in numbers of infections. More than 60% of the GPE partner countries in Africa reopened schools after more than 200 days of closure, with many focusing initially on the examination classes to enable them to prepare and to assess the education systems’ preparedness to fully reopen. Most of the decisions regarding school reopening involved consultations between governments and their supporting partners.
A decline in school enrolments was evident in many of the countries, and upon reopening, was attributed to factors such as loss of interest in schooling due to prolonged closures, barriers brought about by unintended pregnancies, forced marriages, sexual exploitation, engagement in economic activities, mental health and nutrition issues, and disruption of household livelihoods. Back-to-school campaigns, however, increased the learner enrolments in primary and secondary schools. Countries deployed key strategies such as using national and sub-national government administrators, prohibiting schools from hiking fees, and promoting school feeding programs to promote health and nutrition.
Regarding health-related aspects of school reopening, between 85 and 100 percent of the countries instituted measures on the use of masks to promote respiratory hygiene, improved hand washing facilities, promoted physical distancing and hand hygiene practices. Nearly two-thirds of the countries required increased cleaning and disinfection of surfaces and temperature checks in schools while a quarter had a mechanism for tracking infected or exposed staff and learners. Six countries (Comoros, Côte d'Ivoire, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, and Uganda) placed teachers among the top priority group for the COVID-19 vaccination.
To adapt to teaching, learning, and assessment during COVID-19, countries adjusted classroom set-up to accommodate physical distancing and other prevention measures, re-adjusted class schedules through staggered attendance and reorganized school calendars, and embraced partial reopening. They also introduced remedial programs and offered accelerated learning programmes.
Key challenges faced by GPE African partner countries
The countries faced several challenges in implementing school reopening policies and practices. These include fears by parents (Ethiopia, The Gambia, and Kenya) and teachers (Kenya and Zimbabwe), inadequate financing (Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe, Ghana, and Rwanda), fee increments (Ghana and Rwanda), loss of household income (Equatorial Guinea, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Senegal, and Sierra Leone), gaps in infrastructure (Ghana, Nigeria, and Rwanda), pre-existing policies preventing re-entry of pregnant girls and young mothers (Equatorial Guinea, Tanzania, and Togo), and a lack of adequate disaggregated data to track learner progress. All these factors undermine the ability of education systems to ensure that the most vulnerable children benefit from school reopening.
Research continues to emerge as school reopening unfolds. One area is the impact of COVID-19 on private schools: some of the low-fee private schools closed permanently (Ghana and Kenya), others transferred their children to public schools (Kenya and Nigeria), while some continue to experience financial hurdles after reopening (Kenya and Uganda).
A second aspect is the effect of school reopening on community transmission, with correlations between the two being explored in eastern and southern Africa. In terms of challenges to school management under strict COVID-19 protocols, two aspects emerge: low teacher motivation, tracking learner dropouts and teachers’ induction issues as well as lack of effective communication systems in resource-constrained environments and prior inequalities. The last two emerging areas of research relate to estimating school dropouts due to COVID-19 and the socio-economic impacts of child undernutrition.
Recommendations to build back better
The report concludes with some key policy recommendations. First is to strengthen contingency planning for better preparedness against future COVID-19-like occurrences of education disruptions.The experience of most GPE partner countries in developing functional decision-making frameworks with local education groups is a key step to the process. Secondly, countries should embrace flexible COVID-19 school reopening practices to support pregnant teen girls and mothers, ensuring children and youth in vulnerable situations are not left behind in the reopening initiatives. This calls for reforming pre-existing policies that prevent the smooth reintegration of vulnerable learner groups into the school systems. A third recommendation is to initiate sub-national level collaboration among schools and to adapt learning to address learning gaps due to prolonged school closures. Finally, private sector investment in education needs to be sustained through formal involvement, including providing infrastructure support to schools, and providing teachers with psychosocial support before, during, and after school reopening.
This report by the KIX Observatory on Schools Reopening in Africa during the COVID-19 pandemic is rich in evidence and is worth reading. We welcome your feedback on the report.