By Joel Mandaza
The relationship between the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education and Parliament was recently put under scrutiny as the schools reopening debate raged.
Zimbabwe like many other countries across the world closed schools to contain the spread of Covid-19.
The position taken by the government was seen as the best decision across the board, as the diversity in learner backgrounds provided fertile ground for rapid spread of the disease.
Unexpectedly, towards the end of May, Primary and Secondary Education Minister Cain Mathema woke up saying he intends to reopen schools.
Since then it has been an embarrassing string of deferments.
In his usual arrogance, Mathema failed to give clarity on why it was a matter of importance for schools to reopen, despite rising Covid-19 cases in the country.
Promptly realizing its oversight responsibility, the Parliamentary Committee on Primary and Secondary Education led by Honourable Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga went on a fact-finding mission.
They called on all interested stakeholders to give submissions on the matter.
It was an assortment of opinions and facts.
The government was pro-opening for reasons only Cain Mathema and cabinet know, until date.
Private and Trust Schools being elite money making machines, were in favour of reopening arguing that their parents were ready to foot the consumables bill.
Teachers Unions were against reopening, because the government was not taking seriously their remuneration concerns and it was not making a convincing commitment towards ensuring their safety.
Parents on the other hand, were simply scared for the lives of their children.
When such a stalemate emerges in any sector, it is the role of the legislature to gather all parties and suggest a way forward.
This is underpinned by the fact that of all arms of the government, Parliament has an uninterrupted link to the electorate, who are ultimately the owners of the country.
After engagements with all leading voices, the Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga Committee came up with suggestions that schools remain closed.
The government did not listen to the counsel, they continued with their reopening plan against the better wisdom of stakeholders.
They used public examinations as a test of how the new normal in schools would look like.
Examinations happened without much Covid-19 incident, except claims by teachers that villagers in some instances were utilized as invigilators.
Around June cases of COVID-19 were rising and people were calling for the government to reconsider reopening schools especially during the unforgiving Zimbabwe winter.
Instead, the government was releasing dates and methodology of how they were envisioning what they termed a phased reopening.
In a curious ruling, the court urged both parties to find a mutually agreeable position on the matter and for the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education to prove that they are ready to reopen.
This ruling –with respect to the judiciary- was questioned by teachers in hushed tones as they argued that if they had a way to reach an amicable agreement with their Ministry, they would not have approached the courts in the first place.
Then politics and smokescreens came into play.
Days before the government was to prove to court that they were ready for reopening and the writing of exams, Zimbabwe School Examinations board chairperson and Bindura University Vice Chancellor Professor Eddie Mwenje mobilised his fellow Vice Chancellors to donate hand sanitisers.
Local universities have been manufacturing sanitisers since the pandemic started.
The first lady Auxillia Mnangagwa also waded into the matter; she launched what she termed the “schools disinfection program.”
As is in the name, the move was meant to create an impression that schools are prepared.
However, the only school that was actually fumigated was Selbourne Routledge on the day of the launch.
All these strategies were meant to hoodwink the court into buying the readiness story of which it did.
Despite all this, Parliament continued to discourage reopening arguing about the conditions, which were and are still not conducive.
This was based on the budget presented by Primary and Secondary Education Permanent Secretary Thumisang Thabela.
Parliament argued that it was not financial prudence to direct such an amount to reopen schools when frontline health workers do not have adequate protective clothing.
Notwithstanding that, schools in themselves could potentially increase the Covid-19 and subsequently pressure on these frontline workers.
However, when Minister Mthuli Ncube submitted the mid-term budget review, he apportioned ZW$100 million to reopening.
This was a sign that despite the stubborn push for reopening, the government does not have the financial capacity bringing us back to the report that the Parliamentary committee on education gave on the matter.
Besides the material cost, there is also a logistical concern, which Parliament tried to raise, but the government remained stoic.
In announcing reopening, you put both learners and parents back into preparatory mode anticipating resumption only to be told the reopening will no longer happen in the allotted times.
There is a question of organizing resources, some schools were already asking for fees from parents.
There is also that anxiety in students especially those in their final years on whether or not they will be able to write examinations this year.
This has pushed parents into a tight spot where they have had to send their children to extra lessons – a potentially infectious arrangement – to ensure in the event of a surprise announcement by the government.
Again, Honourable Misihairabwi-Mushonga has asked the government to give clarity on the way forward so that restive parents can plan better.
Educationists have already urged the government to call off this academic year in the same manner Kenya has done.
The government seems to prefer having people holding their collective breaths despite the apparent rise in cases indicating that Zimbabwe may be entering its period of a full Covid-19 assault.
A lot of resources are being lost through the government`s denial of the obvious and they are doing so in defiance of an evidence based recommendation of Parliament.
Why are they refusing oversight? Get all COVID-19 statistics for Zimbabwe from COVID-TRACKER