BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE — It’s going to be a good day, thought Raymond Payne as he buttoned his sky-blue shirt and knotted his tie. This week, he could attend lessons in the morning.
Zimbabwe’s schools reopened in March after the coronavirus shut down most for a full year. But new social distancing rules have pushed many back to a controversial two-shift model: Half the students in a class attend in the morning, the other half in the afternoon.
Mornings are better, says 16-year-old Payne, as teachers are “more engaging” first thing. In the summer months, he adds, it’s harder to concentrate during the sweltering afternoons.
The system known as hot-sitting – because seats never have time to cool down – predates the pandemic. It emerged with Zimbabwean independence in 1980, aimed at increasing access to education after decades of racial discrimination under British colonialism. With more children than classrooms, hot-sitting was designed to stretch limited resources until infrastructure caught up.
But the model has persisted. For its critics, hot-sitting, or hot-seating, has also lowered the standard of education. A 2020 World Bank report found some 40% of Zimbabwean primary and secondary schools still used the system due to insufficient public investment in education.
COVID-19 has compounded the situation. Last July, the government’s pandemic guidelines endorsed hot-sitting “as a way of decongesting schools.” Those that were no longer hot-sitting have adopted the method again, says Obert Masaraure, president of the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe.
“In some cases, we had classes that had as many as 120 learners,” he says. “These have had to be split [in]to at least six groups, forcing hot-sitting.”
Fortune Moyo, GPJ Zimbabwe
The system has put new strain on Zimbabwe’s students. “This situation is not working for me,” says Payne, with end-of-year exams looming in October. “I still have a lot to learn considering we did not learn the whole of last year.”
The teen dreams of becoming an architect but fears he’s already falling behind. Before the pandemic, his government-run high school in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, ran regular school days. Since introducing hot-sitting in March, teaching time has been slashed from the usual seven hours a day to accommodate both shifts.
“We only get to learn for about three to four hours a day, which is not enough because we have a lot of ground to cover,” Payne says, explaining how students are racing to catch up with last year’s syllabus alongside the new one.
Hot-sitting isn’t unique to Zimbabwe. It has been used or is still in use by other nations – from Jordan and Malaysia to Botswana and Tanzania – where it’s usually called double-shift schooling.
But the method’s implementation varies widely, according to a 2008 UNESCO booklet on the subject. Author Mark Bray concluded that double-shift schools can be a valuable tool – if managed well – to help achieve universal education. He pointed to studies from the 1980s and 1990s that showed educational attainment at times improved under the model, while acknowledging the findings were variable.
Two of the main concerns in Zimbabwe – the reduction in learning time and the exhaustion of teachers running both sessions – were not factors in some dual-shift systems, which retained the same instruction hours and hired different sets of teachers.
Many Zimbabweans accept the model as a stopgap solution. “Hot-sitting is better than no schooling at all,” says Siphathele Ncube, a mother to two sons at a government school in Bulawayo.
But hot-sitting in the time of the coronavirus has meant students can no longer sit together and share items such as textbooks or stationery, something on which low-income families relied.
“Hot-sitting on its own is quite exhausting but worsened by [the] shortage of learning materials, as students are no longer allowed to share,” says one government schoolteacher, who requested anonymity for fear of losing his job.
His school in the Bulawayo city center wasn’t hot-sitting before the pandemic, and staff are finding it tough to adapt. “Teaching has become difficult because I have to teach two syllabuses within [a] limited time,” says the educator.
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The cost of textbooks is also prohibitive. Last year, the pandemic added another 1.3 million Zimbabweans to the number of extreme poor, according to a June World Bank report. It estimated that nearly half of the population was living in extreme poverty in 2020 as people lost jobs and income.
Nomathamsanqa Dliwayo, a 25-year-old mother who lives in Mzilikazi, a high-density suburb in Bulawayo, says a set of eight textbooks for her third-grade daughter would set her back around 6,800 Zimbabwean dollars (ZWL) ($117) for the year.
But the receptionist only earns 5,000 ZWL ($58) each month. So far she has bought three textbooks. “It is straining financially,” Dliwayo says. “But what choice do I have. I need to buy them for my child.”
Taungana Ndoro, director of communications and advocacy at the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, says an increase in hot-sitting was “the new reality” under the coronavirus.
A lack of resources has been an issue in Zimbabwe since “time immemorial,” he says, adding that the government is constructing “new infrastructure at schools to enable social distancing and decongest” existing buildings.
The goal is to eventually phase out double-session schooling entirely. “When resources are available, there is no need for learners to hot-sit,” Ndoro says.
For now, students like Payne must adapt to the new-old system.
Fortune Moyo is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Fortune specializes in stories about the impact of Zimbabwe’s fragile economy on education.
Kudzai Mazvarirwofa is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Harare, Zimbabwe. She specializes in reporting on development and land reform.
Fortune Moyo, GPJ, translated some interviews from Ndebele. Kudzai Mazvarirwofa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona.