Ghana has joined those countries planning to reopen schools closed indefinitely in March last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The President’s 21st update to the nation on Sunday, 3rd January, 2021, instructed that children in kindergarten, primary and junior high, in both private and public schools, will be back in school from the 15th of January, 2021. Generally, the decision has been well received, with a few recommendations to government to stagger the reopening process because of the inability of the youngest students to observe all the safety protocols.
While evidence is limited on the impact of school closures on transmission of the deadly virus, there is extensive information on the negative effect of school closures on learning and children’s wellbeing.
For instance, most young girls in Africa depend on school for more than just learning. Schools serve as safe spaces where girls are able to access such essential services as social support, nutrition, and menstrual hygiene management and avoid gender-based violence, including early marriage.
In Ghana, as in other developing economies, the impact of the pandemic on education and children has been severe and significant. The closure of schools has deepened learning inequality, heightened domestic and gender-based violence, and has increased child exploitation and teenage pregnancy. Projections suggest that globally about 24 million students face the risk of not returning to school due to such factors as financial difficulties and child labour.
Also, the learning crisis created by school closures and the associated unequal access to remote learning is likely to disproportionately affect disadvantaged children who before the pandemic already faced a widening learning gap and the risk of being left behind.
Consequently, even as schools reopen, the number of children out of school is likely to surge.
Given these challenges, deliberate efforts are required from all stakeholders to ensure that schools open and operate safely.
The need to recover lost contact hours and provide the required learning content amid fear of the spread of the virus remains a huge challenge for all.
To reopen schools, government have promised to:
· Disinfect all schools, public and private.
· Provide Veronica buckets (buckets with taps), soaps, hand sanitizers, and paper tissues for all schools.
· Provide washable and reusable facemasks for all students, teachers, and nonteaching staff.
Also, the WHO and UNICEF recommend frequent handwashing; regular disinfection; access to basic water, sanitation and waste management facilities; and environmental cleaning and decontamination. Additional resources will be required to undertake frequent cleaning, designating a holding room, maintain social distancing, etc.
Government may provide resources to ensure the smooth operation of public schools, but the same may not be guaranteed for private schools, which contribute about 40 percent of total enrollment at the basic level. Most private schools, particularly the low-fee ones, currently have little-to-zero savings put aside for essential maintenance of infrastructure and restocking of essentials.
Nonetheless, they are expected to pay several months of outstanding salaries in some cases and ensure the day-to-day operation of the school. Past trajectory suggests fee payment, a major source of revenue, may be delayed until mid-term or just before examinations begin. Hence, significant support is needed for salaries and operational expenses.
In addition, reopening school during the ongoing pandemic compounds the already existent burden on LFPS, which after being closed for 10 months face the costs of meeting all COVID-19-related protocols associated with organizing schools.
A recent IDP Foundation Inc. assessment of low-fee private schools across the country revealed that key areas demanding urgent assistance ahead of reopening include financial assistance (in the form of grants or low-interest loans) and relevant training in the area of COVID-19 safety protocols and recruitment as well as drafting and implementation of school action plans.
As schools reopen in the coming weeks, IDP Foundation Inc., as part of our commitment to not leaving any child behind, will continue and expand support for low-fee private schools in Ghana. Such support is in the form of:
1. COVID-19 Relief Grants to the most vulnerable schools, which run the risk of not reopening, to support their reopening after months of closures,
2. Relief on interest payment of all accrued interest on loans taken by proprietors of LFPS for the period of school closures, and
3. Future school-management training to ensure LFPS are prepared for any future large-scale disruptions.
It is also expedient for all parties within the education space, especially government, to demonstrate increased commitment towards low-fee private schools.
Going forward, government and the private sector must move beyond the private-public school debate and aim at building partnerships to guarantee inclusion and equality in access to education. Such partnerships should also aspire to provide a conducive environment for all children to access quality education without facing discrimination based on the type of school they attend.
As schools start reopening next week, IDP Foundation recommends the following:
1. The Ministry of Education/Ghana Education service should provide detailed policy guidance on steps all stakeholders need to take to reopen schools and expand on the promises of government support to both public and private schools. This will ensure effective monitoring and harmonization of efforts and mutual accountability.
2. The Ministry of Education and National Schools Inspectorate Agency must relax regulatory enforcement and, where possible, place a moratorium on requirements that demand payment of fees as well as extending the deadline for payments, since proprietors will need to channel all their resources into getting schools ready to receive pupils.
3. Government should consider a 3-to-6-month extension of statutory tax payments for private schools to enable private schools, especially LFPS, to prioritize reopening and staying operational in order to build up their cash flows and reserves and fully recover from the financial impact of COVID-19-related closure of schools.
4. Also, government and development partners must aim towards increasing educational infrastructure in Ghana. According to a recent report by UNICEF, as of 2019 only 25 percent of primary schools had access to electricity. Also, the proportion of primary school with computers and internet stands at 3 percent and 8 percent, respectively. The pandemic has revealed the major role technology plays in education, hence there is no better time to justify investment in technological infrastructure than now. It is also imperative to increase investment in remote learning and not reduce it as face-to face learning commences. Remote learning can be used to supplement contact hours lost during school closure.
5. Moreover, government and development partners should prioritize increasing funding to support marginalized and poor communities to ensure all children return to the classroom. Interventions intended to fast-track this process must reach students in both private and public schools.
6. Furthermore, government is encouraged to initiate steps to develop policies to regulate both private education delivery and public-private partnerships in education.
7. Lastly, the pandemic has woken up new allies in support of education. It has galvanized new actors in the community—from parents to social welfare organizations—willing to support children’s learning as never before. Government and education stakeholders must keep these new allies active and leverage their abilities and comparative strengths in reach, especially in support of vulnerable groups and underserved communities.
Source: Ghana Web