Following President Lazarus Chakwera’s announcement that schools should reopen next month, it has emerged that Teachers Union of Malawi (TUM) demanded that teachers should receive Covid-19 risk allowances once schools re-open.
TUM secretary general Charles Kumchenga in an interview yesterday said risk allowances was one of several demands that they made during a meeting with the Ministry of Education’s Task Force on Reopening of Schools in April this year, three months before Chakwera’s announcement on Saturday.
Ministry of Education Principal Secretary Chikondano Mussa has since confirmed TUM’s demands, saying the issues are still under discussion.
According to Kumchenga, TUM made the demands considering that teaching students in an environment where there is Covid-19 may pose a high risk to teachers.
He said: “We presented our demands to the task force on what we wanted done if schools were to reopen.
“Among other things, we want risk allowances just like healthcare workers and also for government to provide us with personal protective equipment [PPE].”
Kumchenga could not be drawn to specify how much the teachers want as risk allowances, but health workers receive risk allowances between K20 000 and K60 000 per month, depending on their grades.
Asked what action they will take should government not respond favourably to their demands, the secretary general said they are optimistic that government will listen.
“We believe this is a listening government, so we are waiting on the justification government will give TUM and what response it will provide to our demands. We are optimistic that government will respond to us soon,” said Kumchenga.
Other demands by TUM, according to the secretary general, include clarity on how government will resolve classes with high teacher-to-pupil ratio.
In a separate interview, Mussa said all decisions made will be communicated once government is ready.
She said: “Those issues are under discussion. As you may have picked it that these issues were made sometime back, so, they are still under discussion [within the ministry] and a decision is yet to be made.”
Meanwhile, Civil Society Education Coalition (Csec) executive director Benedicto Kondowe has said with the recent spike in Covid-19 cases, there is need to ensure that schools reopen responsibly.
He said: “Our considered view is that reopening should be done gradually, with priority of high stake grades such as Standard Eight, Form four, IGSCE and final year students in colleges and universities.”
Kondowe emphasised the need for a concrete commitment from government to support schools with adequate requirements such as personal protective equipment (PPE).
Chakwera announced in his weekly radio address on Saturday that schools will reopen next month and that the Ministry of Education will start assessing facilities this week to check if they meet safety standards.
On his part, education expert Steve Sharra, said: “I doubt that the inspecting team will find any schools ready to reopen next week unless the Ministry of Education had communicated to schools prior to the President making the announcement.”
In addition, Sharra said schools with good and able leadership will progress while those with poor leadership will lag behind, a situation he said might worsen inequalities.
Infectious disease expert Dr Titus Divala in a written response yesterday said considering the life-threatening nature of the pandemic, reopening of schools should be informed by evidence that benefits outweigh harm.
He said what would be ideal once schools reopen, among others, includes ensuring capacity of classrooms allows one metre spacing, learners have face masks, hand washing facilities are available, disinfection of classrooms and reduction of contact hours.
Said Divala: “There must be open spaces in classrooms and communities should be engaged adequately and given roles to support public health measures in schools.”
On his part, University of Malawi’s College of Medicine professor of public health and epidemiology Adamson Muula said the important question to be answered is when and under what circumstances the schools must reopen.
He said: “These questions are complex and cannot just be answered by one press conference and a decision by a homogenous and in some cases, politically-inclined groupings.”
Among some of the guidelines the Ministry of Education has put in place are a preparedness checklist for schools to facilitate the reopening, including disinfection of schools before reopening and availability of water, soap and hand sanitisers at entrance of classrooms, toilets, dining areas, libraries, hostels and administration offices.
The guidelines also indicate an engagement of stakeholders on reopening plans, health protocols and strategies to ensure safety and learning, as well as orientation of teachers on remedial education strategies on health, hygiene and psychosocial support for learners.
In addition, the guidelines also indicate that the Ministry of Health, through district health and district environmental health officers, will ensure periodic disinfections and preventive protocols are followed, learners oriented and that schools cancel assemblies and other crowded events.
Government directed that schoolS should close on March 20 this year as a Covid-19 preventive measure. On April 2, Malawi registered its first three Covid-19 cases, which escalated to over 5 026 by yesterday.
The demand by the teachers comes three months after government started to provide risk allowances to healthcare workers, including doctors, nurses, physicians, clinicians and medical laboratory scientists, after they demanded the same following the Covid-19 pandemic.
In recent months, teachers, who constitute almost half of the 130 000 civil service workforce, have held several strikes pertaining to challenges that government has failing to address. n