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Statement on education sector preparedness to re-open schools during the
COVID-19 pandemic
1. Introduction and background
The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) is mandated to monitor the
observance of human rights and freedoms by Section 243 (1) (c) of the Constitution
of Zimbabwe Amendment (No.20) Act 2013. According to the Principles relating to
the Status of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) (Paris Principles, 1993),
NHRIs such as ZHRC have the general responsibility to submit to the Government,
Parliament and any other competent body, on an advisory basis, opinions,
recommendations, proposals and reports on any matter concerning the promotion
and protection of human rights. It is against this background that ZHRC conducted
an assessment of enjoyment of the Right to Education in the wake of the COVID 19
pandemic. This followed statements issued by Government with regards to the
progressive re-opening of schools which were prematurely closed in March 2020 due
to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since the pronouncement of COVID 19 as a national disaster, ZHRC has been
monitoring the human rights environment across the country, and issuing statements
which highlight the prevailing human rights situation. From the 1st to the 5th of June
2020, ZHRC focused attention on assessment of the preparedness of the education
sector to re-open schools during the COVI-19 pandemic. This assessment looked at
enjoyment of the right to education vis-à-vis enjoyment of rights to health and
life.The ZHRC sampled government, mission, council owned and elite private
schools in Harare, Bulawayo, Norton, Chegutu, Kadoma, Mhondoro, Marondera,
Rusape, Nyazura, Nyanga, Chinhoyi, Karoi, Bindura, Masvingo, Murewa, Mutoko,
Chiweshe,Goromonzi among others.
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In its assessment, ZHRC established a serious conflict of rights between education,
health and life. Since human rights are by their very nature inter-dependent and
indivisible, the question is which right/s should take precedence over the others?
This human rights dilemma is further compounded by the fact that Government
closed schools when the country only had four (4) confirmed cases of the pandemic
but a decision is being made to re-open schools when cases have spiralled beyond
three hundred (300). This brings to question, the issue of the best interests of the
child as enshrined in Article 3 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 3
of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and Section 81 (2) of
the Constitution of Zimbabwe. These provisions reiterate that the best interests of
the child should be paramount in every matter concerning the child.
2. Best Interests of the Child
Section 4 of the Education Act [Chapter 25:04] provides for the children’s
fundamental right to education without discrimination. International and regional
Instruments to which Zimbabwe is a party, such as Articles 2 and 3 of The
Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) read together with Articles 3 and 4 of
the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of Children (ACRWC) provide that
every child shall be entitled to the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms enshrined
therein without any form of discrimination. Further, in all actions concerning the child
undertaken by any person or authority the best interests of the child shall be the
primary consideration. At the same time, Article 14 of the ACRWC reiterates that
every child shall have the right to enjoy the best attainable state of physical, mental
and spiritual health. The Committee on the Rights of the Child, in General Comment
No. 14 (2013) highlighted that, assessing the best interests of a child means “to
evaluate and balance all the elements necessary to make a decision in a specific
situation for a specific individual child or group of children, to include the child’s wellbeing,
situations of vulnerability, their rights and needs with regard to health and
education”, among other issues. The same Committee added that the objective of
the best interests’ determination process is the identification of a durable solution.
Best interests’ determinations are carried out when the issues at stake are expected
to have significant implications on the child’s present and future life. The different
elements considered in an assessment and determination of the best interests of a
child are usually competing or in contradiction. Potential conflicts need to be solved
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on a case-by-case basis. Thus, a larger weight should be attached to what serves
the child’s interests best.
The Government therefore, has the obligation to weigh three critical rights at this
point which are the sacred Right to Life (Section 48), the Right to Health Care
(Section 76) and the equally important Right to Education (Section 75).
3. Views of school children
Article 12 of the CRC, provides that States shall accord the child who is capable of
forming his or her own views, the right to express those views freely in all matters
affecting the child, and that these views should be given due weight in accordance
with the age and maturity of the child. ZHRC had an opportunity to interact with
pupils of both primary and secondary school levels. ZHRC acknowledges the fact
that students have knowledge on COVID 19, the dangers and precautionary
measures involved. Upon being interviewed on their views on schools opening,
some learners were of the view that schools should open as they were getting idle at
home; some want to finalise their studies through writing of examinations. Another
group of learners highlighted that they do not want to repeat classes next year so
they supported the Government’s decision to re-open schools. The junior learners
indicated that they wanted to go back to school to meet and play with their friends
whom they last saw more than two months ago.
The majority of the students interviewed however, were of the view that opening of
schools should be put on hold, (just like during the liberation struggle) and open
when it is safe to do so. They raised fears that concentration of students coming
from different homes, would expose them to the pandemic. They also stated that due
to limitation of resources within their schools, it would be difficult for them (schools)
to guarantee students’ safety. Equally of concern was the fact that their guardians
did not have enough resources to provide them with protective equipment such as
masks, and hand sanitizers. Again, some students indicated that they considered the
opening of schools during the pandemic, as an experiment with their precious gift of
life, and therefore were not willing to go back to school, with some saying that they
were prepared to repeat their current classes next year.
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4. Access to Information (Section 62)
Section 62(1) of the Constitution provides for the right to access any information held
by the State, or any institution or agency of Government at every level, in so far as
the information is required in the interests of public accountability. Furthermore,
Section 29 (3) of the Constitution makes emphasis on the obligation of the State to
take all preventive measures necessary including education and public awareness
programmes in order to prevent the spread of diseases. The question is “has this
been accomplished”.
The ZHRC noted a gap in the dissemination of information relating to re-opening of
schools by the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, to educators, learners,
parents and guardians across the country. School administrators and other
educators raised concerns over inconsistencies in information being disseminated by
different Government officials (through official social media platforms, print and
electronic media), which they said was causing a lot of confusion amongst them. The
Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, Ministry of Information and
Broadcasting Services as well as the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Primary
and Secondary Education have been concurrently issuing out statements on reopening
of schools. Some of the statements have been inconsistent. Educators
stated that they were not sure of the preparatory measures which need to be put in
place ahead of re-opening of schools, the timeframe and actual dates for re-opening
remain uncertain, the extent of the responsibilities of learning institutions versus the
contribution of Government in the preparation, was also highlighted as being murky.
In some of the schools visited, school administrators highlighted that they had
adopted a ‘wait and see attitude’. They simply await circulars from the relevant
ministry giving directions on how the re-opening of schools should proceed. School
authorities also indicated that the information dissemination process was only
vertical, with information descending from high offices, without any consultations with
the affected people on the ground such as heads of schools, teachers and students.
They felt that some of the proposed measures being advanced by Government were
unrealistic, and that wider consultations would have assisted with coming up with
practical measures in the Education sector during this pandemic.
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School Authorities reported that they had limited access to information on COVID 19.
They indicated that they only receive updates from social media, radio and
television. Those in rural and farming communities where satellite signals are poor,
failed to access relevant information on prevention and protection measures in light
of the pandemic. It was further highlighted that health issues remained a technical
matter, making it difficult for educators to fully comprehend the safety demands for
COVID 19, without adequate awareness raising on the issues. It was also
highlighted that there was limited understanding on the World Health Organisation
(WHO) COVID-19 Guidelines, which schools have been instructed to meet, as they
prepare for re-opening. They said so far they had been told to produce their own
face masks and hand sanitisers. This information gap negatively affects the
preparations for re-opening by learning institutions.
Educators demonstrated lack of information and guidance with regards to the
modalities around the testing of staff and pupils before and after schools open. Both
guardians and school authorities were of the view that there was need for prior
testing of teachers, support staff as well as students before opening (to cater for the
window or asymptomatic periods); upon opening of schools testing and temperature
screening should be carried out regularly during the school term. It was stated that
testing of body temperature on its own was not adequate, especially when preparing
for people coming from different areas who would come and be concentrated in one
place. In relation to temperature screening during the course of the term, it is not
clear on who has the responsibility of screening staff and students when schools
open. If the teachers bear that responsibility, it is not clear if they will be trained on
how to effectively carry out the task.
Schools also highlighted that they received an instruction that the Fashion and
Fabrics Departments together with fellow teaching personnel within schools had the
responsibility of making face masks. It was highlighted that there were no clear
guidelines and quality control measures in the production of the masks (the same
applied to the science departments that were tasked to produce hand sanitizers).
Schools also raised the issue of exorbitant testing fees which should be paid to
laboratories for testing the quality of hand sanitisers produced by schools. There is
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high risk that schools may be forced by financial circumstances to avail the hand
sanitisers for use without going through the requisite testing.
Further, there are challenges that in the majority of schools, there is limited
personnel available at the work stations because of travel restrictions imposed due
to the lockdown. The presence of skeletal staff at learning institutions hampers the
preparatory work which should be carried out prior to re-opening of schools. The
travel restrictions and demand for exemption letters by the police also affects
movements relating to preparation for the impending public examinations in June
2020. Some educators ended up paying bribes to the police in order to secure
passage while carrying out official duties. This caused financial prejudice on their
already strained financial resources.
It also emerged that there were no clear guidelines on the roles that different
Government entities should play in administering precautionary measures, in
preparation for opening of schools. Schools also had questions on who had the
responsibility to fumigate their premises, for instance, was it the role of schools or
the Ministry responsible for Local Government, through Environmental Health
Technicians (EHTs) from local authorities?
5. The Principle on Non-Discrimination and Equality
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 39th Session (General
Comment No. 19, 2007) highlighted that, under international human rights law,
States are expected to eliminate direct and indirect discrimination in law and practice
on any grounds. It also requires States to take special measures to protect the most
vulnerable segments of the population as a matter of priority. Thus, during this
COVID-19 pandemic, the State has the obligation to ensure that even the
marginalised schools such as those in the peri-urban, farming and rural communities
are assisted so that they are in a position to put in place measures to ensure safety
of staff and students in the event that schools re-open.
ZHRC established that there were huge discrepancies between the elite private and
trust schools on one hand and most Government, Mission and Council schools
around the country on the other hand. The elite private schools indicated that they
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had managed to do their research and put in place precautionary measures at their
institutions. This had been made possible due to the fact that they spread the cost of
COVID 19 safety measures to the parents and guardians of their pupils, and that the
guardians had the capacity to pay in foreign currency (United States Dollars).
However, this was not the same with the other schools which indicated that their
financial resources from last term’s fees had run out since they still needed to pay
overhead costs such as water, electricity, internet services, telephone bills as well as
salaries for ancillary staff such as janitors and clerks. This therefore means that
some of the schools cannot procure any materials for producing personal protective
equipment and materials such as face masks and hand sanitisers. At the same time,
parents and guardians of learners at these schools highlighted that they were equally
financially constrained and unable to make any payments of school fees if schools
remained closed since there was no direct benefit to the children.
The introduction of electronic learning (e-learning) also raised some complaints of
discrimination on the basis of economic and social status, which is prohibited by
Section 56 (3) of the Constitution. Some parents and guardians lamented the fact
that they did not have internet connection at home and at the same time could not
afford to buy data bundles which would enable their children to take part in virtual
learning. Due to this discrepancy in economic status, it was observed that it was
mainly the elite private schools which could meaningfully conduct google and zoom
classes. On the other hand, government, mission and council schools indicated that
they were not able to conduct virtual lessons due to lack of compatible electronic
gadgets and limited access to internet services which are highly expensive. The
discrepancy is in that while one group of elite students has already commenced
classes through virtual learning, the economically disadvantaged group was
excluded from this mode of learning yet learners from both private and public
schools were expected to write the same examinations, at the same time.
Also of concern to the ZHRC is the threat to the enjoyment of labour rights, by the
support staff working at schools, whose needs are supposed to be met even during
school holidays and during this pandemic. Section 65 of the Constitution provides
that citizens have the right to safe labour practices and standards and to be paid a
fair and reasonable wage, and that every employee is entitled to just, equitable and
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satisfactory conditions of work. ZHRC established that schools were struggling to
ensure the realisation of this right for their support staff, as a result of non- payment
of fees, and the erosion of few savings by inflation.
6. Hygiene issues
Section 73 of the Constitution provides for environmental rights, by stating that every
person has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health and wellbeing.
Section 77 provides for the right to safe, clean and potable water. The key
safeguards to combating COVID 19, are the strict practising of hygiene, through
staying in a clean environment and constant washing of hands with clean water and
soap. Most schools in the peri-urban and rural communities indicated that they were
encountering serious water challenges within their institutions. In some schools it
was reported that they were relying solely on the Zimbabwe National Water Authority
(ZINWA) or council water, and had no back up storage tanks to cater for rationing
periods. ZHRC also noted that there was a significant number of schools that did not
have any source of water at their premises, so learners are asked to take turns to
fetch water from nearby schools to use at the schools. Some schools stated that they
were failing to repair boreholes which were installed by development partners and
other well-wishers, due to lack of financial resources. For these schools, it is difficult
to keep a clean environment since access to water is a real nightmare. At such
schools, in the event that schools open without reliable sources of water, the
likelihood of experiencing disease outbreaks due to poor hygiene is high, over and
above the threat of COVID-19 pandemic.
7. Limited availability of financial resources
ZHRC gathered that most schools do not have enough finances for them to put in
place precautionary measures against COVID 19 before schools open. Some
schools indicated that they solely depended on fees payments for operations. These
schools last received finances last term, and any few savings that remained were
eroded by inflation or exhausted by operational costs such as payment of salaries for
ancillary staff and payments for utility bills. This limitation in finances made it
impossible for schools to procure materials and chemicals for producing face masks
and hand sanitizers. It was also highlighted that thermo-scanners were unaffordable
with prices ranging between US$60 to US$80 each, an amount which is beyond the
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reach of many schools, considering that more than one thermo-scanner is required
at a school.
8. Infrastructural limitations
ZHRC notes with concern the limitations in infrastructure at the majority of schools
visited by the Commission around the country. One of the COVID 19 safety
measures is that people need to practice social/ physical distancing. ZHRC noted
that in most schools, students share study desks, such that if social distancing is to
be implemented, more individual desks need to be procured. In regards to some
Government, mission and council owned boarding schools, it emerged that the
hostels were already crowded due to big enrolments, and for children to practise
social distancing, there is need to decongest hostels and create extra
accommodation. This decongestion of hostels is a mammoth task due to limited
financial resources. Boarding schools also highlighted the challenge of dividing
students during meal times so as not to crowd the dining halls, and that if students
were to be grouped in the acceptable numbers taking turns to have their meals, that
would also eat into learning time as well.
In some schools that have shift learning “hot sitting” programmes for learners due to
the big enrolments and limited classrooms, concerns are on how classes can be
further divided in light of the existing pandemic. These institutions are also
concerned with the modalities around disinfection of the classrooms and furniture
since learners take turns to have lessons, leaving no adequate time for disinfecting
the facilities. ZHRC also noted the ablution facilities for staff and students at schools
are limited such that there is risk of infection with the virus since there are too many
people touching the same surfaces in these facilities.
9. Concerns of Educators
Educators raised serious concerns over their own safety and enjoyment of the right
to health. They indicated that once schools open, they would be exposed to mass
infections, due to the influx of students coming from different homes and
backgrounds, as well as getting in conduct with learning materials such as books
when they mark them. It was highlighted that there were some amongst them who
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had underlying chronic ailments, and that these had genuine fears of contracting
COVID-19, if schools open during the pandemic.
Teachers at some of the schools that were visited indicated that as breadwinners for
their families, they feared exposure to the pandemic and infection by the Corona
virus which could result in fatal consequences. They advised that given a choice they
would rather wait for the pandemic to subside before resuming work since life is
precious and if lost cannot be regained. They said if directed to return to work, they
would only do so due to fear of victimisation and reprisals by the employer. They
feared losing their jobs which are the only sources of income for them and their
families. Some teachers also felt that in as much as their representative unions were
engaging with the policy-makers at higher levels, their (teachers) voices were not
being heard. They argued that during the liberation struggle, schools were closed
down for two to three years due to personal security threats and people returned to
school after the war. It was their submission that the same stance be adopted during
this pandemic, since it is better to sacrifice the academic year rather than
experimenting with human lives.
In relation to compliance with use of personal protective items, some teachers
indicated that face masks were by their very nature uncomfortable apparels which
one could not continuously wear for the whole day, especially when administering
lessons. The same applies to learners who would most likely discard the masks as
the day progressed due to discomfort. This problem would be most prevalent with
junior primary school learners who require constant supervision even in a non-
COVID-19 situation. Teachers will therefore be forced to assume the role of
‘compliance officers’ who police the learners to ensure that they remain with their
face masks for the rest of the day. This becomes an additional burden to teachers
who are already inundated with their core duties.
In terms of level of health vulnerability, teachers viewed their work which involves
getting in contact with huge masses of learners on a day to day basis as being more
risky than that of health personnel, thus deserving payment of risk allowances by the
employer. ZHRC received mixed submissions from different stakeholders on the
issue of payment of risk allowance to teachers. Some stakeholders were of the view
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that since teachers are equally exposed to the virus just like health personnel, it is
prudent for the Government to cushion them with a COVID 19 risk allowance.
However, there were some who were of the view that there was no adequate
monetary value which could be placed on human life so no amount of risk allowance
could compensate for a threat to the right to life. It was suggested that Government
should put in place measures that ensure safety at the work place to enable teachers
to conduct their duties comfortably and with confidence that their lives were secure
and being prioritised.
10.Administration of examinations
ZHRC takes note of the communication by Government relating to the 2020 June
examinations which will commence on the 30th of June 2020. In as much as ZHRC
appreciates the need for candidates to complete their assessments, there are
however important factors that need consideration. Issues that came out during the
monitoring mission were that schools which serve as examination centres do not
receive financial support from the examination board (ZIMSEC), but they are
expected to run examinations including handling of external candidates. This was
seen as a cause for concern since the schools which may not be able to meet its
own requirements for personal protective equipment may not be able to meet the
needs of external candidates. Again, it is not clear on whether or not the schools
have the responsibility of providing candidates with hand sanitisers or face masks in
the event that a candidate comes for an examination without a face mask, or that the
responsibility lies with ZIMSEC or the candidates themselves. Lack of clarity on
these pertinent issues, was highlighted as a barrier to preparatory work for the public
examinations. It was also highlighted that it was going to be uncomfortable for
candidates to write examinations wearing face masks, especially those with allergies
or respiratory conditions such as asthma.
In urban settings, there was mention of mobility restrictions as a challenge to
candidates if examinations are written during the lockdown, especially for students
who commute from different suburbs to get to school. It was not clear on what
measures would be put in place to guarantee the free movement of candidates and
invigilators in such circumstances. Furthermore, issues around social distancing and
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infrastructure as highlighted before would equally apply during writing of public
examinations.
11.Recommendations
To: The Government of Zimbabwe
11.1. Government should constantly apply the principle of the best interest of the
child in its deliberations to open schools during the COVID 19 pandemic.
11.2. Government should improve on transparent collaboration of relevant State
institutions, such as those responsible for health, social welfare, education and
local government so that there are clear terms of reference which specify the
role of each of the institutions on the opening of schools. There should also be
one State mouthpiece which disseminates the government’s position to avoid
inconsistencies and contradictions
11.3. Government should conduct a needs assessment at needy schools such as
those in the rural, farming and high density communities so as to identify specific
gaps and needs, and offer adequate support before opening of schools. There
is need to avoid a “blanket” form of support/ intervention.
11.4. Government should consider provision of make shift classrooms such as tents
in schools around the country, in order for social distancing to be implemented.
11.5. Government should ensure that thorough COVID-19 screening is carried out
as opposed to mere measurement of body temperature. There should be
periodic testing of learners and teachers before and after schools have reopened
to cater for the window periods of COVID-19. Government should issue
out certifications of such screenings (like the yellow fever certificate) and people
should keep the records in order to keep track of the screening and certifications
that they have gone through.
11.6. Government should issue out a form of certification for compliance with the
set COVID 19 precautionary guidelines to schools that would have met the set
standards for them to open. Government should also set out measures on how
those (schools) that would have failed to meet the certification standards will be
assisted for them to re-open together with others in line with the principles of
non-discrimination and equality.
11.7. Government should communicate effectively on measures which have been
put in place regarding re-opening of schools that were being used as quarantine
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centres. Issues which require clarification include the timelines for vacation of
school based quarantine facilities by the residents housed in these facilities,
frequency of fumigation and how the schools will be certified as fit for use and
safe for occupation.
To: The Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education
11.8. The Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education should provide schools with
clear guidelines, checklists and a comprehensive work plans with timelines, in
relation to opening of schools, specifying the responsible actors as well as types
and sources of resources required for each aspect of the preparatory process.
11.9. The Ministry should adopt principles of participatory governance whereby it
engages with its primary stakeholders such as educators, parents, guardians
and learners when making decisions of a public interest nature, instead of only
engaging in summit or high level consultative processes which exclude internal
stakeholders.
11.10. The Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education in liaison with the Ministry
of Finance and Economic Development should consider the allocation of risk
allowances to educators and at the same time ensuring that schools have safe
and secure working environments which enable schools to re-open during the
pandemic. Safety measures need to be guaranteed and met first before opening
of schools. If Government encounters challenges in guaranteeing these
measures, then opening of schools should be postponed until the Government
obtains the necessary resources to guarantee the rights to health and life of
learners, teachers, ancillary staff at schools as well as parents and guardians or
postpone re-opening of schools until the pandemic is over.
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Statement on education sector preparedness to re-open schools during the COVID-19 pandemic