Finally, back to school
After almost seven months, pupils across the Central African Republic started to return to the classrooms on 19 October 2020 for the beginning of the school year 2020-2021. Schools were closed countrywide at the end of March as a measure to contain the spread of Covid-19. Some classes resumed in July and continued through to September, but only the three levels in an examination year, allowing pupils to proceed to the next class. Meanwhile, the children in the other nine levels without a year-end exam remained at home.
A spark of normality
For most children, 19 October was the day they had been waiting for. The school routine brought back a little bit of normality into the children’s lives that had been shaken by yet another crisis with the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic.
While the Ministry of Education’s verdict for the capital Bangui was positive, the start of the school year was slower in other parts of the country, such as in the far north prefecture of Vakaga, in Haut-Mbomou in the southeast and in parts of Ouham and Ouham Pendé in the west. Insecurity that rules in these regions has displaced many teachers, destroyed school infrastructures and out of fear, children do not dare leaving the house.
School as a safe space
According to the Education Cluster, which supports the government and coordinates the humanitarian response in this sector, nearly 1.4 million children from pre- to secondary school were affected by the Covid-19 related school closure in the Central African Republic. Fears prevail that many of them will never return to school, in a country where only 49% of children complete primary school. Children were deprived of access to education in a context where the education system offers few, if any, opportunities for quality distance learning. Only 4% of the population has access to Internet. But schools also constitute a safe space for children, particularly in a country that is ravaged by conflicts and violence. The school closure has increasingly exposed children and youth to various forms of abuses, including economic exploitation in households, and the recruitment and use in armed groups. And girls, for their part, have been increasingly victims of sexual violence, according to the reports from various humanitarian partners.
A long and stony road ahead
At the national level, 9 per cent of children enrolled at the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year have dropped out during the course of the year. Reasons are manifold and include, for example, the loss of family income due to displacement. As a result, parents become unable to pay school fees and supplies. Other factors leading to the school drop-out rate include the lack of qualified teachers and poor school infrastructure, insecurity in large parts of the country, but also the lack of latrines at school – particularly important for adolescent girls. The 9 per-cent drop-out estimate is based on the situation before Covid-19. The pandemic has seen children and youth increasingly take on income generating activities, for example as street vendors or in processing facilities, or they have become an integral help in the household and with childcare. The risk is high that many of these children will not return to school, particularly those from families where even the smallest income contribution is necessary to survive. The coming months will show how many children will have abandoned school in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Girls will likely be disproportionally affected by Covid-19 related school drop-outs. This has been the case even before the pandemic. While 75 per cent of boys proceed from primary to middle school, this only applies to 65 per cent of girls. Several factors are responsible for this gender disparity, including traditional roles that see girls in the household rather than at school, ignorance of laws promoting equal access to education, the lack of female teachers that function as role models, violence at school or on the way to school and early marriages and pregnancies.
Supporting the reopening
The Education Cluster in partnership with UNICEF and other partners are taking various steps to support the government in facilitating the beginning of the school year and to motivate students to return to class. The Education Cluster plans to introduce an Education Cash Transfer in the coming months for the most vulnerable children with the highest school drop-out risk. A financial support incentivizes families to keep their children in school and covers parts of the expenses.
In the framework of projects financed by the Humanitarian Fund for the Central African Republic, the Education Cluster will prioritize the reopening of non-functional schools, for example with the construction of temporary learning and child protection spaces, the recruitment and training of substitute teachers in the absence of qualified professionals, and the distribution of school supplies and pedagogical material to pupils and teachers.
In Vakaga prefecture, the NGO Intersos supported 250 children to finish the final primary school year, take the year-end exam and to proceed to middle school, thanks to support from the Humanitarian Fund. So many teachers had left in the wake of growing insecurity in the prefecture that such classes could not be hold for everyone, as it was the case in other parts of the country.
Trying to uphold hygiene standards
The humanitarian community has also been supporting the Ministry of Education to prepare a safe return to school in the wake of Covid-19. Funds from the Global Partnership for Education, managed by UNICEF in the Central African Republic, allowed the purchase of hand washing facilities, soaps and similar items that are distributed to schools across the country. Humanitarian actors have also purchased facial masks for teachers and pupils. The Education Cluster has been supporting the Ministry of Education in elaborating a protocol, defining the hygiene standards at school in the context of the pandemic.
However, despite great efforts, schools in the Central African Republic are likely not in a position to respond effectively to the requirements of the pandemic. In the current context, where many schools are dilapidated and where one teacher looks on average after 113 children, respecting physical distance during classes is naturally difficult, to say the least. Respecting Covid-19 barrier measures would imply the construction of hundreds of new classrooms and the recruitment and training of thousands of teachers.
The least lucky ones
Those pupils with the least of luck are those whose school has closed for reasons other than Covid-19. Data from the Ministry of Education reveals that nearly 300 of the 3,500 schools in the country are currently closed because of population displacement, lack of teachers, armed groups’ attacks or occupation of schools or check points that hinder access to schools. These students are not likely to return to school anytime soon.