Gov’t faces stark choices amid growing calls on school reopening
By Charles Lotara and Sheila Ponnie
What happens now? COVID-19 has shut schools countrywide, keeping more than 2 million children out of classrooms. Unless it ends soon, its effect on young minds, according the United Nations agencies, could be devastating.
Amidst some epidemics, keeping children at home seems wise; they are efficient spreaders of diseases such as seasonal flu. However, UNICEF and UNESCO recently noted that children appear to be less prone to catching and passing on SARS-Cov-2.
Closing schools may be advantageous in slowing the spread of the virus, but less than other measures. Stacked heavy costs to children’s development to their parents and to the economy comes in sharp contrast with the decision to keep schools closed.
Save the Children, an international organization that focuses on children’s wellbeing, raise an alarm last week after holding three consecutive webinars with children across South Sudan to find out how COVID-19 is affecting their lives whilst at home.
The organization’s finding was that violence against children characterized by forced marriage and early pregnancies among girls was on the rise.
Deputy Minister of General Education and Instruction, Martin Tako Moi in a statement seen by The City Review said about 50 schoolgirls are pregnant in Eastern Equatoria State, unknown number in Western Equatoria and other parts of the country during the period of COVID-19 alone.
In June, Prosecutors in Rumbek filed murder charges against three men accused of killing a 19-year-old girl after she refused to marry a man chosen by her family. When such an act against teenagers is known to happen in many parts across South Sudan, school closure worsened the phenomenon.
An investigation by The City Review also established young boys of school-going age are being forced to do heavy menial domestic works while others have ventured into the public transport centre, mainly as conductors for omnibus drivers.
“While the decision by the government of South Sudan to close schools was taken to ensure safety of children, their families, and teachers, it is now time to evaluate this decision in light of scientific evidence on risks to children,” Save the Children said in a press statement late June.
Any decision to re-open schools, it warns, should be done in the best interest of the child and in accordance with the public health protocols to protect children’s health against the deadly virus threatening the collapse of a fragile health system.
The costs of barring children from the classroom is huge. Like an expert from The Economist says, no amount of helicopter parenting or videoconferencing can replace real-life teachers, or the social skills acquired in the playground. Even for countries with best infrastructure and tech development for virtual learning, things are not just working out.
A matter of brighter future and doom, poorer families bear the brunt of school closure more than their middle or upper-come counterparts. Zoom lessons could have similarly been of little to no importance in a home that lacks reliable internet access. Fortunately, the government did not try this initiative, thanks to the country’s low internet penetration percentage.
In May this year, the Ministry of General Education and Instruction partnered Save the Children and other education actors to roll out a radio-learning programme on UN-funded station Miraya FM. Despite radio being a common model of communication, it is not an all-encompassing scenario.
“Most children in South Sudan are in rural areas and cannot afford the radio. The alternative methods of learning are inadequate, non-inclusive and their effectiveness is not established,” Save the Children said.
Rama Hansrai, Save the Children Country Director called on the government to ensure absolute protection of school-going children affected by COVID-19 from abuse, exploitation, gender-based violence and neglect, especially girls and the most marginalized, including but not limited to children outside of family care and in schools, and children with disabilities.
But not all sections of the society buy the idea of reopening schools. The Ministry of Health, influenced by the World Health Organization, remained muted over the escalating calls. An attempt to get comments from the Ministry’s Spokesperson Dr. Thouo Loi was unfruitful after his phone rung unanswered.
A teacher who spoke anonymously on fear of reprisal said without motivation, pedagogues on government payroll who have gone for months without salaries would feel rather tormented. On the other hand, parents need safety guarantee for their children.
“If schools will be reopened, it’s up to the government to ensure that our children will safe. They should tell us what they are going to do to make sure our children are safe, but so far we did not hear anything from them,” said Utieu Hilario, a parent whose son awaits completion of senior four.
Schools’ resumption may feel like a rash experiment with young lives. In fact, it is an exercise in risk-balancing. Schools are the most powerful engines of social mobility in any society, and neither does the safety of children.
The tennis is in the court of the government to way both options and decide which one to prioritize.