Mr. Zulu and his students in their classroom before the Covid-19 pandemic shut schools down

By Devon Hsiao and Rosaria Marron                                                  

As a result of the Covid-19 global pandemic, students and teachers around the world are having to navigate the challenges of school closings and social distancing measures. In the online discussion on working and schooling from home, voices from the Global South are relatively few and far between. Thus, we reached out to a teacher in Zambia to share his story.

 Abraham Zulu is a junior secondary teacher at New Mzumwa Primary School in a newly-created district, Lusangazi, in the Eastern province of Zambia. The school goes up to 9th grade, and has 9 teachers responsible for 678 students. It is located in the Ukwimi Refugee Resettlement Area and the community is predominantly a farming community. Not surprisingly, many of the students come from poor backgrounds.

As per governmental direction from the Zambian Ministry of Health, the school was closed on March 20th, 2020 as a preventative measure in response to the threat of the virus. Now, we know that with the school closures that are happening around the world right now, many teachers and parents have been struggling with implementing distance learning strategies. So, what does distance learning look like in the context of Mr. Zulu’s school? How are teachers and students coping with this new reality, especially in a rural farming community?

At New Mzumwa Primary School, very few students have access to the technology needed to carry out online e-learning initiatives, so work remains in the hardcopy form. A few students and parents have cellphones, so in limited instances teachers have been able to text assignments and provide feedback to them. However, there is no reimbursement program, so the teachers and parents have to shoulder the texting costs themselves. This makes it very difficult as data costs in Zambia are relatively high.

Lack of internet technology means students now have to go pick up their work from school on set dates, and then complete their work at home. In order to minimize the amount of social contact, students are sorted into groups based on the location of their homes. Each group has a leader that goes to pick up work and pass it around their neighborhood. These group leaders act as liaisons between students and teachers, also collect feedback from teachers to pass back to students.

Mr. Zulu stated, “The teachers have received feedback from students saying that they are having a difficult time comprehending and consolidating the information in their lessons.” To try to help them, students are still allowed to visit or call teachers for help with their schoolwork. He also notes a possible connection between socioeconomic status and performance during distance learning; at his school, students from middle class homes with parents that work as civil servants/civic leaders seem to be responding more positively to the program than others.

Overall, Covid-19 has disrupted education globally, but participation in schooling in areas that already struggle with access to education and resources before the pandemic are now hit even harder by school closures.