NATIONAL Action for Quality Education in Zambia (NAQEZ) executive director Aaron Chansa says lack of desks and inadequacy in the teacher-pupil ratio is making social distancing impossible in rural schools.

In an interview, Chansa said NAQEZ’s assessment of how schools in Western, Muchinga and Luapula provinces were observing government’s health guidelines following the commencement of learning for pupils in examination classes showed that physical distancing was still a challenge in most rural schools.

Chansa cautioned that it would be challenging for government to incorporate pupils from non-examination classes back to school if the issue of lack of desks and inadequate teachers in schools were still not addressed.

“Our members have been to most schools around the country from the time schools opened and the reports we have received indicate that most schools have settled down and learning has commenced now. So, one can safely say that most of the schools have stabilized. However, some of the things we have noted are that for schools in provinces like Luapula, Western and Muchinga, pupils are finding it very difficult to exercise physical distancing because of lack of desks. We have been to some schools in Kawambwa [District of Luapula] and Chinsali in Muchinga where we found learners literally sitting on the floor! Most schools in these areas have no desks whatsoever. So, this, in our view, is one of the most challenging factors that are affecting teaching during this period of the [COVID-19] pandemic,” Chansa said.

“Also, the other thing that we’ve discovered is that most schools in rural areas are finding it very difficult to teach split classes as guided by government because of inadequate numbers of teachers. You know that we have some classes where you find that we have 100, 80 or 90 pupils in one class! But because of the health guidelines now, these classes have to be split maybe in three or four classes. But some of these schools have one, two or three teachers. So, that means that the workload doubles or even triples. So, teachers are finding it very difficult to work in such a situation because of that increased workload.”

Chansa demanded that government should purchase more desks in schools and deploy more teachers to rural schools.

“There are two things that we need to demand from government; one is the immediate purchase of desks. Available statistics are indicating that by 2018, the Ministry of General Education has a shortfall of more than 1.3 million desks and from that time up to now, nothing has been done, meaning that the shortfall has actually increased. So, this is going to make it very difficult for schools to operate, especially when we begin to consider non-examination classes. This is actually a crisis and we call on the Ministry of General Education to seriously consider purchasing desks for schools, especially rural schools, or they can forget about incorporating the children from non-exam classes back into school at this stage,” said Chansa.

“The other demand that we are making is for the Ministry to recruit teachers. I am sure you are aware that the country has more than 50,000 teachers who are trained, but not employed. Last year, there was no recruitment, this year, also, we have not heard anything and we feel that this is the right time for the Ministry to consider recruiting teachers so that we can begin to deal with this big number, avert a crisis because this is a social-economic crisis and also help to reduce the teacher-pupil ratios that are very bad in most schools in rural areas. So, those are some of the things that we’ve noticed so far. If we are saying schools have no desks, then it is impossible to open the other classes because it will mean that all the guidelines against COVID-19 will be vandalized. You cannot keep distances when there are no desks; you cannot split classes when there are no teachers. So, unless we are saying we do away with the preventive measures against COVID-19…Otherwise, as things stand, schools will not be ready to accommodate non-examination classes.”