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MAIL & GUARDIAN
The Mail & Guardian is a South African weekly newspaper and website, published by M&G Media in Johannesburg, South Africa.
COVID School Chaos, Snapshots From 10 Countries Around The World
Coronavirus
Irene Caselli and Carl-Johan Karlsson

COVID School Chaos, Snapshots From 10 Countries Around The World

Teachers, students, parents and society as a whole have suffered through the various attempts at educating through the pandemic. Here’s how it looks now: from teacher strikes in France to rising drop-out rates in Argentina to Uganda finally ending the world’s longest shutdown.

School, they say, is where the future is built. The next generation’s classroom learning is crucial, but schools also represent an opportunity for children to socialize, get help for special needs … and in some villages and neighborhoods, get their one decent meal a day.

COVID-19 has of course put all of that at risk. At the peak of the pandemic, classrooms were closed for 1.6 billion schoolchildren worldwide, with the crisis forcing many to experiment on the fly for the first time in remote learning, and shutting down learning completely for many millions more — exacerbating worldwide inequality in education.

The decisions to close schools have been some of the toughest choices made during the pandemic. It’s universally acknowledged that children most succeed with in-person classes, but the question still remains whether the health risk to students and those around them is worth it.

The Omicron wave has only caused this debate to heighten, with teacher strikes in France, rising drop-out rates in Argentina and staff shortages in South Africa. But there are signs of hope: Uganda has finally reopened schools this week, ending the world’s longest shutdown nearly 20 months later. Elsewhere, countries struggle in myriad ways to face the challenge of educating and caring for our youth through COVID:

ARGENTINA — Drop-outs and long hair

Argentina had one of the longest disruptions to school activities, according to data by Unicef, with 79 weeks of closure. Officials blame the lockdown for many of the more than 600,000 students who dropped out permanently from classes — a number six times higher than the year before the pandemic, reports La Nación newspaper.

Even for those who did go back to class, the pandemic created huge disruption. In this photo essay, photographer Irina Werning documented the life of a girl in the province of Buenos Aires, and her decision to cut her hair only when she got back to school after the COVID-19 restrictions were lifted.

UGANDA — The world’s longest shutdown

Uganda reopened its schools on Monday after the longest pandemic-prompted shutdown in the world started in March 2020. Child rights groups had criticized Uganda’s decision to keep schools fully or partially shuttered for 83 weeks, leaving 15 million students without education amid mostly failed attempts at switching to a remote learning model.

Barred from school, many boys entered work in mining, street vending and sugarcane planting. According to the National Planning Authority, up to one-third of students are not expected to return to the classroom due to teen pregnancy, early marriage and child labor.

SOUTH AFRICA — Teacher shortages

In South Africa, one of the African countries hardest hit by the pandemic, 70% of students starting third grade this year haven’t learned to read, having missed out on 50% schooling during the last two years. As such, the Department of Basic Education plans a return to a normal school timetable in 2022, despite the country battling a fourth wave of infections driven by the Omicron variant.

But as five inland provinces — the Free State, Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, and the North West — started their academic year on January 12, the country’s schools still struggle to work around the persistent shortage of teachers, the Mail & Guardian reports. In April 2021, there were 24,000 vacancies spread across schools in all provinces and according to TimesLIVE, some educators are already teaching classes of more than 50 children.

Taking a child's temperature before going to school in Madrid, Spain

Isabel Infantes/Contacto via ZUMA

PHILIPPINES — Learning online with bad Internet

The Philippines also recorded one of the world’s longest education lockdowns. Schools closed completely in March 2020, and only reopened face-to-face classes in December for an experimental two-month trial that involved 287 public and private schools, according to the newssite Rappler.

But as Omicron cases surged, on Jan. 2, the Department of Education put a halt to the expansion phase of face-to-face classes and announced the suspension of in-person classes in areas under a higher infection level, including the metropolitan area of Manila. Online classes have only been accessible to a small portion of the population, because Internet access is not widespread, especially in rural areas that account for more than half of the school population, creating a further gap in education.

UNITED STATES — Homeschooling boom

With waves of school closures around the United States during COVID-19 surges, many parents have taken their children's education into their own hands. The national homeschooling rate increased from 3.3% before the pandemic to 11.1%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Some parents wanted to better cater to students with special needs or provide religious-based education, while others felt local schooling options were inadequate.

The boom has particularly striking in the state of Virginia, where home-schooled students are up by 40% compared to 2019, according to the Virginia Department of Education data, now making up to 5% of the total public school enrollment.

Home-schoolers are especially concentrated in conservative rural areas, where they represent up to 20% of students in some counties. Many families opted for homeschooling as a result of the COVID-19 school restrictions and classes going online, with parents fighting against mask mandates, but also to the decision by schools to teach critical race theory.

ITALY — Government flip-flops

Prime Minister Mario Draghi made it a priority to keep schools open despite an upsurge of COVID-19 cases in Italy, with updated restrictions to help contain the spread of the virus. But Vincenzo De Luca, the outspoken governor of the southern region of Campania, issued a decree to delay school opening after the Christmas break. The central government successfully challenged De Luca’s decision in court this week, creating last-minute chaos among school personnel and families. Still, in some towns around the region, mayors decided to keep the structures closed.

This precarious situation has led commentators, like sociologist Chiara Saraceno in this editorial for La Stampa daily to lament not only the missed lessons of the two years, but the last-minute nature of decisions that leave no time to families to get organized. The pandemic has taught us the benefits of flexibility rather than constant crisis mode. Saraceno writes: “We need to break the tabu of the untouchable school calendar.”

SWEDEN — Always open

As the pandemic struck and countries around the world went into lockdown, Sweden became one of the last outposts for refusing curfews and instead relying on health agency recommendations for how to curb the spread — and primary schools were no exception.

But while Swedish kids may have missed out on less hours in class, a 2021 study by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology shows that Swedish high school students experienced more frustration and anger than their Norwegian counterparts. The researchers suggest that while social interactions have been more frequent for Swedish students, the higher levels of national contagion may have resulted in an overall greater strain on their mental health, Skolvärlden newspaper reports.

At the peak of the pandemic, classrooms were closed for 1.6 billion schoolchildren worldwide

Rober Solsona/Contacto via ZUMA

SPAIN — Where are the tests?

As Spanish students returned to classes after the Christmas break, a debate has flared up between the government and teachers, who have demanded routine testing, El Pais reports.

With the number of students expected to return to pre-pandemic levels, the Education Ministry has nonetheless decided that in classes with children under 12 years old, only more than four infections — or 20% — will demand a group quarantine. Teachers have lashed out against the decision on social media, pointing to Germany where frequent rapid tests are carried out on all students, as well as Italy, where the army has been deployed to carry out mass testing on students.

FRANCE — Mass teachers strike

Keeping French classrooms open has been a priority during the recent surge in COVID-19 cases for President Emmanuel Macron, who faces a reelection campaign this spring. But there was backlash from teachers who shut down many of the nation’s schools Thursday with a mass strike in protest against the government's handling of the coronavirus crisis, reports Libération daily.

Teachers cited confusing and constantly changing COVID rules that have left them exhausted and frustrated. As coronavirus infections have surged since the beginning of January, the government this week eased rules on COVID checks for students to reduce the massive pressure on testing capacity. But the relaxation has caused safety concerns for teachers as France reported a record 332,476 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday — with teachers protesting that the government's lack of communication, frequent changes to testing, and insufficient protection against COVID has left them unable to do their job.

AUSTRALIA — Last to close

Thirty-five of Australia's top academics, doctors and community leaders have made a call for the country’s authorities to allow schools to fully open for face-to-face learning. The open letter, published in The Sydney Morning Herald on Wednesday, urges governments to follow WHO and UN advice that "schools must be the last to close and the first to open."

The signatories make three main arguments for full school reopenings. First, that a delay to returning to in-person learning ignores the obligation to deliver the best education possible to children; second, that it puts children’s mental health at risk; and third, that there’s no medical case for face-to-face learning to be suspended awaiting the vaccination of 5 to 11-year-old children, as COVID-19 is a "mild disease" for children with an overwhelming majority recovering without any adverse effect.

President  @CyrilRamaphosa  accompanied by Minister  @MondliGungubele , Minister  @PatriciaDeLille , Deputy Minister  @ZiziKodwa , and Premier  @AlanWinde  as he inspects the damage to the Parliament buildings in Cape Town.
Geopolitics
Carl-Johan Karlsson

South African Parliament Fire Raises Deeper Questions About Democracy

It took firefighters nearly three days to extinguish the blaze at the historic building in Cape Town, and the damage will persist as South Africans try to figure out how this happened, and what it says about the country’s struggle to reinforce its young democracy.

That the devastating fire at South Africa’s parliament building broke out in Cape Town on Sunday — one day after anti-apartheid hero Desmond Tutu's funeral was held nearby — only adds to the anguish of a nation struggling to reinforce its democracy nearly three decades after its first free elections.

Since the blaze was finally extinguished for good on Tuesday, South Africans have been debating the ramifications of the fire that tore through the 150-year-old building, laying waste to the wood-paneled assembly where the president makes his annual state-of-the-nation address.

Protest, negligence or crime of opportunity?

Adding to the uncertainty are doubts about the arrest of a 49-year-old unemployed man charged with arson. Zandile Christmas Mafea was arrested at the Parliament complex shortly after the fire was reported. According to prosecutors, Mafe was caught with stolen laptops, documents and crockery, and was charged with arson, theft, possession of explosives and breaking state security laws.

But questions also remain over why the alleged arsonist, who according to his lawyer plans to plead not guilty, would burn down the historic building. Some have pointed to the timing of the fire, occurring just days before the Parliament was to receive a report on corruption under former president Jacob Zuma. But others accuse the government of scapegoating a poor man to distract from its own failure to protect its buildings, with surveillance systems unmonitored and sprinklers said to have been out of commission, Mail & Guardian reports.

Whatever the motivation or narrative, the burning-down of a parliamentary building is bound to have a divisive effect in a country reeling from a long period of socio-economic decline and with a ruling party characterized by internal ideological incoherence.

Faultlines along the road to freedom 

Since its first democratic election in 1994, South Africa has in the last decade drifted further and faster away from the vision of a modern country at peace with itself fought for by the likes of Tutu, who died last week at the age of 90, as well as the winner of that first election, the late Nelson Mandela.

The government’s failure to implement job-intensive growth policies in the first decade of the 21st century sparked popular doubts about the trickledown effect of neo-liberal policies, culminating in a transition of power from Thabo Mbeki to Jacob Zuma in 2009. The shift in leadership ushered in an era of seemingly endless corruption scandals, overspending, reduced private sector autonomy and plunging investor confidence. Last year, South Africa’s official unemployment rate became the highest in the world at more than 44%, and some experts suggest that in the absence of economic reform, the country could be a failed state by 2030.

Let’s put aside the finger-pointing

Today, South Africa is still on edge after a wave of deadly riots last July, and the pandemic has further reduced the working population. As such, the government’s handling of the burning of the parliamentary building — the site of both the promulgation of the apartheid laws as well as their abolishment — is likely to have a disproportionate effect on the population.

In the Daily Maverick, Oscar van Heerden, deputy vice-chancellor at Fort Hare University, suggests that restoring basic trust in the government should start with restoring the building that holds South Africa’s collective heritage: “Let’s put aside the finger-pointing, let’s forget about possible arson plots and let’s just show the nation that, for once, we can get something done competently in the shortest possible time frame.”