Shortened School Week Means Less Learning, Wider Gaps

Public schools must limit how many days students can attend classes to comply with pandemic health rules. So what happens when school is not in session? Students are on their own.

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Shortened School Week Means Less Learning, Wider Gaps

Prudence Phiri, GPJ Zambia

Leya Matoka (from left), 12, Mary Sikombe, 12, and Aria Munkombwe, 13, sixth-grade students at Munjile Primary School in Lusaka, sit under a tree to solve a math problem.

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LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — It’s a hot Tuesday morning outside Mtendere Primary School, where Rachel Mvula and her peers sit on dusty stones, books spread on their laps.

Rachel, 14, leans over to help the other students solve a math problem. She smiles occasionally as she moves around, acting the instructor in a makeshift school without one.

The voices of trained teachers echo inside classrooms within the school, which sits in the heart of Lusaka, Zambia’s capital. But today, Rachel and her friends are not scheduled to enter the building, so the school grounds will serve as their classroom.

Rearranged schedules are the reality for many students during the pandemic as countries seek to limit interaction and prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But in Zambia, alternating school days have upended the already beleaguered public school system and threaten to fuel further inequality. Parents argue the decision jeopardizes the system’s most fundamental promise: free primary school education.

“It’s difficult to understand certain things like math formulas and English language on our own,” says Rachel, who is only allowed to attend class three days a week under new coronavirus procedures. “But when we consult teachers, they tell us to pay for extra tuitions for them to teach us privately.”

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Prudence Phiri, GPJ Zambia

Rachel Mvula, 14, prepares to go to Mtendere Primary School. She says not attending class every day makes her worry that she won’t advance.

The pandemic forced schools to shut down for six months and interrupted learning for more than 4 million students. Schools reopened in September under strict guidelines from the Ministry of Health that require students, staff and anyone entering school premises to wash their hands, wear masks and maintain social distancing.

But the government has provided little specific guidance about implementing the rules.

Individual schools must weigh how to best manage students while observing guidelines, says Dennis Wanchinga, General Education minister.

That has left many public schools, which often teem with students but lack resources, to develop an alternating learning schedule in order to maintain social distance. In the case of Mtendere Primary School, those in grades five through seven attend school three days a week, while grades one through four attend school only two days a week.

Wanchinga has encouraged parents to find alternatives, such as private lessons, to ensure their children don’t fall behind in their studies. But parents say this defeats the purpose of free primary school education.

“There is always a cost to this free education, like buying paper and cleaning materials, but now paying for private tuitions makes everything worse,” says Rachel’s mother, Sarah Lungu, a vegetable vendor at Mtendere Market. “What happens to our children for us who can’t afford tuitions?”

Private tuition would cost 300 Zambian kwacha (about $14) per month for Rachel’s eight subjects, something Lungu says she can’t afford.

Students Return to Class, but Teachers Don’t

The guidelines put extra strain on a struggling system. A recent report from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs indicates that 16% of students in Zambia’s eastern and southern provinces dropped a reading level during the pre-September school closures.

Experts worry that the situation might worsen, causing literacy levels and math skills to further decrease. About 8% of Zambians ages 15 to 24 are illiterate. Students in grades five and nine have yet to meet the target average score of 40% in language and mathematics, according to UNICEF.

As a result, fewer students this year might advance from primary school (grades one through seven) to secondary school (grades eight through 12), says George Hamusunga, the executive director of the Lusaka-based Zambia National Education Coalition, which advocates for quality education in Zambia.

Students from better resourced private schools, or students whose families can afford extra lessons, are the ones who will succeed, he says — fueling a cycle of inequality.

“The rich will continue getting educated [and] getting good jobs, while the poor continue lagging behind.”

Cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, continue to rise in Zambia and officials have said little about accessing a vaccine. The Ministry of Health has confirmed more than 63,000 cases and over 800 deaths.

The current education plan will continue for the foreseeable future, says Wanchinga, the General Education minister. Teachers need to find ways to ensure students remain engaged in schoolwork on days they are not in school, he says.

Others are trying different strategies. Hamusunga says his organization is working with the Examinations Council of Zambia, which sets and conducts school examinations, to take into account the learning delays for public school students.

The Examinations Council has added provisions to ensure examinations are favorable to public school students, Director Michael Chilala says. He declined to specify the provisions.

With no indication of when the usual learning schedule might resume, students like Rachel and her friends must teach themselves so they don’t fall behind.

“As tough as it is to learn on our own,” she says, “we just have to do it.”

Prudence Phiri is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Lusaka, Zambia. She specializes in health and education stories with unique and surprising angles.

Translation Note

Prudence Phiri, GPJ, translated some interviews from Nyanja.