By Alois Vinga
Only nine percent of students living in Zimbabwe’s rural areas had access to online learning facilities during lockdowns to slow down the spread of Covid-19 last year, the World Bank has revealed.
In a report on the state of the country’s economic situation titled: Overcoming Economic Challenges, Natural Disasters, and the Pandemic: Social and Economic Impacts, the global lender says the Covid-19 outbreak worsened the plight of poor learners in Zimbabwe.
It says the pandemic put pressure on already strained public resources, which exacerbated implementation challenges, severely affecting service delivery in health, education and social protection.
“As schools across the country closed in response to the lockdown measures, access to remote learning was limited in rural areas, especially for poor households,” the report released on June 10 says.
“Only nine percent of school-going children in rural areas were reported as having used mobile applications for learning during pandemic-related school closures, compared with 40 % for urban children.”
After recording its first cases of Covid-19 in March last year, the country went into a total lockdown that saw schools closing early.
The second term was written off as schools only started re-opening in September in a phased approach that saw the last classes only returning to school in November.
Some schools, mostly in urban areas, made use of online lessons to help students to cover for the lost time. However, in rural areas it was difficult to do so due to lack of information technology communication gadgets and limited access to radio.
A German non-governmental organisation, Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF), said its studies had revealed that 840,000 children in Zimbabwe had dropped out of school due to Covid-19.
Fungisai Sithole, the FNF programmes manager, told a local publication recently, that the digital divide between rural and urban areas had worsened inequalities in the education sector.
“These (rural) children have no access to phones, they have no (access to mobile phone) networks and already, they come from poor backgrounds,” Sithole was quoted saying.
“The education budget priorities should change focus, and we need more digital infrastructure to be able to make sure that we continue to address issues that separate children.”
According to the Zimbabwe Schools Examinations Council, students in urban areas that sat for school leaving public examinations performed much better than their rural counterparts last year.
The Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (ARTUZ), said the poor pass rates recorded last year could be attributed to lack of e-learning infrastructure in rural communities.
“The suitable candidates had failed to write because they had no access to education (e-learning), which became the main method of learning last year as schools remained closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic,” ARTUZ said.
An estimated 75 % of Zimbabweans live in rural areas.
The World Bank urged Zimbabwe to “reallocate spending from inefficient, distortive subsidies to targeted measures that limit the toll of the pandemic, provide social safety nets and food security, and prevent a learning crisis that risks undercutting long-term growth and productivity.”