Lecturers, students welcome phased reopening of universities
The first students to be physically readmitted to Malawi’s higher education facilities will be those who are approaching final examinations, with other students being readmitted from 28 September, although the exact timetable will need to be approved case by case by the education ministry.
In a detailed statement, Nyalonje said colleges and universities were “very prepared for reopening”.
She said the decision to reopen schools and institutions of higher learning in phases was aimed at ensuring that the authorities carefully control and manage the spread of COVID-19. “In-between the phasing in of cohorts, all schools, colleges and universities should be disinfected,” she said.
Indicating some confidence that the reopening will not help to generate a second wave of infection, the government has also released dates for terms and related holidays during 2021 and 2022, with details for three terms per academic year being released. This includes more teaching dates than usual. The minister called this a “catch-up calendar” for 2021, adding that the Malawi National Examinations Board would release a detailed examination calendar later.
“Training of personnel, students and communities on the regulations and safe, protective and hygiene practices,” would take place and education institutions would receive “necessary safety, protective and hygiene materials and finances,” Nyalonje said.
Awareness campaigns on how to reopen institutions safely are being developed by the education ministry and public communications officers within the Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19, added the minister.
“COVID-19 has put education in Malawi and the world over in disarray. We realise, however, that there is a need to continue educating and preparing the human capital needs of the country,” she concluded.
A ‘good decision’
Academics and student leaders have reacted positively.
John Gonapamuhanya Gondwe, student union president at Mzuzu University, said it was a “good decision” given that higher education institutions had been “dormant for quite so long”.
The government of former president Peter Mutharika imposed a lockdown on 23 March. A subsequent plan to reopen universities on 13 July was scrapped following a spike in infections, prompting the presidential taskforce to recommend a halt to the plans, even though some universities had produced revised draft academic plans.
The latest decision to reopen was taken after Mutharika was replaced by current President Lazarus Chakwera following June elections.
Gondwe said students in the final stages of their studies, with some in their last semester when the lockdown was initially imposed, were especially happy with the decision. “I, personally, am very eager to go back to school. The world is waiting for us to make a contribution towards the development of our country,” he told University World News. While he appreciated there were health risks for lecturers and students, he called on both staff and learners to ensure social distancing and that sanitising rules “are strictly followed”.
Dr Levi Zeleza Manda, Blantyre International University journalism and communications lecturer, welcomed the fact that the reopening dovetails, to some extent, with the new academic year. “Two terms have already been lost and there will be a need for a lot of catch-up teaching and learning.”
In the meantime, he said, parents of students awaiting permission to return to classes should take the responsibility of ensuring their sons and daughters studied at home as far as possible.
Dr Anthony Gunde, senior lecturer in media communication and cultural studies at Chancellor College, a constituent college of the University of Malawi, said: “We have not been teaching since April this year and, of course, some of us are a bit rusty but eager to get into class, with caution.”
Gunde suggested that students and teachers should be provided with personal protective equipment (PPE) – masks for students and face shields for teachers, librarians and other staff who do “much talking” during their work.
The presidential task force has recommended that all students wear masks and have their temperatures tested, and that all buildings have handwashing facilities.
It is hoped that such PPE will allay the concerns of teaching unions which say they will keep a close eye on how staff are protected and block returns if they are dissatisfied.
Teachers Union of Malawi Secretary General Charles Kumchenga said: “We are looking at the safety of [those] who will be working during this potentially deadly period. If we are satisfied with the safety conditions, we are going to reopen. If not, we will tell teachers not to reopen.”
Malawi’s Deputy Education Minister Madalitso Kambauwa Wirima, however, appealed to union leaders to be patient: “My plea is that they need to be patient because having schools closed has negatively affected the country [and] learners.”
She added that the Tonse Alliance government of President Chakwera is “passionate” about education and its key development role. Lecturers “need to know that we value them”, she said, stressing that the return to studies was a government-wide policy backed by the president.
“The risk is there, but teaching is missionary work,” said Manda. He said he was encouraged by Blantyre International University's promising measures such as allowing open-air teaching when weather conditions permit, installing hand-washing facilities, regular body temperature checks and the daily sanitisation of teaching and administration buildings, among other indoor facilities.
Integration of lockdown experiences
He called on the government to integrate experience generated during the lockdown regarding remote learning and non-exam assessments of students into study programmes, stressing that these topics should be part of a formal review, which should integrate online education into courses.
Universities and colleges need to “reduce emphasis on examinations”, he suggested, with students being asked to prepare projects and work from home as part of a comprehensive system of continuous assessment. Moreover, the current dependence on face-to-face learning should be reconsidered, he said. Indeed, he proposed that the National Council for Higher Education assess all universities and colleges within Malawi regarding their capacity to deliver online learning.
A statement issued by the education ministry said it accepted its value, and that it is encouraging universities and colleges to explore developing online learning as a standard teaching method while establishing emergency remote teaching contingency plans in case future crises like the pandemic cause institutions to close their physical buildings and facilities.
However, the ministry accepted that much work was needed to make this goal a reality. “While online learning is a recognised alternative delivery mode of education worldwide in this information technology era, we have extremely limited experience of this mode of education in Malawi.”
Gunde said the key problem in Malawi was the country’s yawning digital divide, with sharp inequalities in internet access between students from different backgrounds. Major investments in systems and technologies are needed, as a result, he said: “This is about digital literacy and access to resources which are currently reserved for the privileged few.
“We need to invest in digital literacy from an early age,” he added, arguing that this cannot be achieved by the government alone, but in partnership with IT firms and non-governmental organisations.