Back to school in Africa: Five lessons learned so far

Global opinion is divided on how fast children should be allowed to return to school after lockdown. Randa Grob-Zakhary and Andrew Bollington examined data from 48 African countries to shed light on the matter


Global opinion is divided on how fast children should be allowed to return to school after lockdown. Randa Grob-Zakhary and Andrew Bollington examined data from 48 African countries to shed light on the matter

The reopening of schools in South Africa is sparking heated debate across the country. Opinion is divided between those, like some teaching unions, who argue it’s not safe to reopen with Covid-19 cases still rising, and those who believe it’s in children’s interests to be back in the school environment as soon as possible.

Across the continent, decision-makers are wrestling with similarly tough choices about the risks and the readiness of their school systems to cope. There is an urgent need to learn lessons from the experience so far, as is it possible that multiple closing and opening decisions will be required in the coming year in response to ‘waves’ of infection.

Already, children in sub-Saharan Africa have been out of school much longer than their counterparts elsewhere. Globally, 70% of countries closed schools within the same 10-day period between March 15 and March 25. In Africa, this meant that many schools closed before a single case was observed as part of a widely praised proactive strategy. Months later, many countries have yet to reach their Covid-19 peak and most children are still out of school.

With so much still unknown, at Insights for Education we believe there is great value in synthesising and sharing experiences within and across regions. Will more countries go the route of reopening schools only to close again? Our in-depth look at available data and qualitative information from 48 sub-Saharan African countries suggests five early lessons.

African schools are reopening before the peak in daily infections

In European averages, countries are announcing school re-openings 12 days after the peak in new daily infections and children are returning to the classroom 34 days after the peak. A closer look at the experience of sub-Saharan Africa reveals a very different pattern. Countries are announcing reopening, on average, 24 days before the peak in daily infections and starting to reopen seven days before the peak.

These averages conceal variation: 19 African countries have now reopened schools, while 27 [as of 25 June] have decided – like Kenya, Uganda, and Senegal – to keep them closed for now. Burundi and Seychelles have kept at least some schools open throughout the pandemic. Of the countries that have reopened, two groupings stand out. A cluster of seven countries, including Niger and Burkina Faso, reopened schools after a sustained downward trend in cases. A larger group has reopened despite rising cases – including Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and South Africa.

It’s too early to judge the outcomes of these different approaches, but early trends suggest those reopening after the peak has clearly passed are seeing either continued decline or only marginal increases in rates. Of the 10 countries reopening earlier in the infections curve, nine reopened before reaching their peak and their trend continues upwards.

Safety pre-conditions are harder to meet in low-income countries

When it comes to putting the right safety measures in place, gaps exist between policy and realities on the ground. Six African countries require face masks for learners and teachers as part of their reopening policy, but press reports suggest that masks are not available in schools.

A social distancing requirement of 1 metre, the minimum recommendation from the World Health Organisation, is commonly required. To create this extra space, countries such as South Africa and Botswana have learners attend in half shifts or prioritise exam years as Burkina Faso and Ghana have done. This stands in contrast to countries like Niger and Côte d’Ivoire that have decided to return all primary and secondary learners at the same time. 

Sanitation is a major challenge. Country responses have included upgrading facilities (Senegal), positioning sanitiser at entrances (Côte d’Ivoire) and disinfecting washrooms at least twice per day. In some cases, students rotate responsibilities for wiping down surfaces between classes. In most cases, sports and shared facilities are closed. 

Teacher availability is key to reopening decisions

Countries aren’t reporting uniformly on the availability of educators and other personnel, but it’s clear that this has a significant impact on decisions to reopen. Countries with teacher shortages before the pandemic, with high numbers of teachers in at-risk categories, or for whom transportation to and from school is not possible, are especially challenged.

The majority (70%) of countries worldwide that have reopened schools are high or upper middle-income, with primary student/teacher ratios ranging from 13-18 students per teacher. Even those with this relatively “good” ratio are finding it necessary to reopen in stages to ensure staff, resources and safety needs can be met, and mostly limit reopening to learners in exam years. In contrast, low-income countries, where schools mostly remain closed, often face overcrowded classrooms with official ratios of 28-42 students per teacher. Their decisions to reopen schools are even more complicated and prolonged.     

Community engagement underpins smooth classroom returns

International guidance emphasises the importance of meaningful engagement of teachers, community leaders and parents in the return to school. The case of Denmark illustrated how much this aids the process. They reopened schools in May before the peak but have seen a sustained decline in Covid-19 cases.

In some countries, such as Kenya, broad participation and teachers’ voices have played a role in influencing the postponement of reopening from June until September. The safety concerns of teacher organisations have also impacted reopening plans, in South Africa and the United Kingdom for example. Across Africa, countries are working to reach and engage communities, using methods like telephone interviews (in Kenya, Rwanda and Zambia), mobile apps (Zambia) and radio blasts (Somalia).

Equity and inclusion are vital

The status of vulnerable and marginalised children in lockdown is cause for concern worldwide. Many countries are taking proactive measures to support learners least likely to return. These have included Ghana’s decision to waive school and exam fees temporarily and Côte d’Ivoire’s measures for enhancing girls’ safety. Sierra Leone has adopted especially remarkable “radical inclusion” and “comprehensive safety” policy responses, based on learning from the Ebola crisis, showing that pregnant girls and adolescent mothers were least likely to return to school and/or to fall most behind once back in the classroom.

African countries have been praised for locking down early in the face of potentially devastating consequences. Despite widespread challenges in meeting preconditions, many countries are reopening earlier than expected and before peak cases are reached. The combination of relaxed travel restrictions, reopened economies and schools, and numerous upward trends in cases requires careful monitoring, flexibility and resilience, especially as schools may face multiple cycles of reopening and closing. The lessons of the past three months need to be identified and learned quickly as history is likely to repeat itself. 

Dr. Randa Grob-Zakhary is the CEO and Founder of Insights for Education

Andrew Bollington is a Senior Consultant for Insights for Education

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