By Tatenda Chitagu
Government has ordered boarding schools across the country to cut down on their intake for this year to allow for social distancing among learners.
The order will come as another knock to the hundreds of boarding schools in the country which are reeling under the effects of COVID-19-induced closures and disruption of the education calendar.
The Primary and Secondary Education ministry has conveyed the new directive in memos sent to district schools inspectors and heads on Thursday as schools prepare to enrol Form, One students, after the release of the Zimbabwe School Examinations Council 2020 Grade Seven results two weeks ago.
One such memo, seen by the NewsDay Weekender, was communicated to all schools in the Midlands province by provincial education director (PED), Jameson Machimbira.
Referenced “Call to reduce 2021 boarding enrolment to comply with COVID-19 management protocol in boarding facilities in the Midlands province”, it read: “Having experienced an outbreak of COVID-19 in some boarding facilities in 2020, the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education has resolved to improve compliance of boarding facilities in observing WHO and the Ministry of Health and Child Care COVID-19 prevention guidelines.
“Heads are, therefore, advised to strictly adhere to the number that can be allowable in the boarding facilities when recruiting 2021 boarders. As a guide, new boarder recruits for 2021 should significantly be less than 2020 boarder recruits. To ensure compliance, officers from both the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education and Ministry of Health and Child Care shall move to boarding schools monitoring observance of COVID-19 guidelines and compliance to boarding capacity measures.”
Machimbira warned that non-compliant schools “shall have their boarding facilities closed and only be allowed to open after complying with set guidelines.”
Several school heads and oversight authorities in Masvingo and other provinces also confirmed receiving the new directive, which has left them in a quandary.
Contacted for comment, Education ministry deputy spokesperson Patrick Zumbo said: “Am not sure of the numbers that you are talking about. We have to check.
“However, it’s a matter of fact that we are still operating under COVID-19. As such, the standard operating procedures have to be adhered to. Issues of social distancing still apply.
“As a ministry, we believe that it is better to err on the side of caution in order to save lives.”
Speaking off record, one boarding school head from Masvingo said the move will further affect their revenue streams following disruption of the education calendar by COVID-19 lockdowns since March last year. Others said the move, while noble, would be difficult to implement.
“It is a dilemma for many boarding schools, especially private schools that depend on mass enrolment for huge financial returns,” said one school head.
“Remember, last year we were closed for several months and were also made to buy personal protective equipment on our own after the money to buy them from the government did not come.”
Another said the new arrangement means schools have to change their structures, thus adding another financial burden on them. “It is tough because our boarding facilities like dormitories were built in such a structure to allow mass accommodation,” he said.
“For example, one huge dormitory which used to house several students may just be left with a few if we are to follow such a directive. It means we have to build other structures because the current enrolment for Form Two to Six students remains, save for Form Ones. How do you effect such a cut on Form Two to Six learners already enrolled? Where are we going to get the money to build additional structures to allow for social distancing when we are financially struggling,” he said.
Late last year, after almost a six-month hiatus, most boarding schools became the flashpoint and superspreaders of the respiratory disease when they re-opened, with pupils being quarantined and some learning facilities closing abruptly. NewsDay