Zimbabwe teachers’ strike continues as government announces examination dates

Teacher unions claim schools in Zimbabwe were closed not only to curb the spread of covid-19 in August but also because of the teachers’ strike for better working conditions. Photo from Facebook

There could be a showdown between the teachers’ unions and government when schools re-open in Zimbabwe next week.

Unions representing teachers in Zimbabwe have vowed not to return to work despite the announcement by the government that final year examinations will continue as scheduled in November and December while preparations for the reopening of schools are underway.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa two weeks ago relaxed covid-19 regulations in which he announced that final year examinations for Grade 7, Form 4 and Form 6 students would go ahead in November and December.

A leaked circular from the Ministry of Education to district education officers requested school heads to prepare for the reopening of schools in September, with indications that UNICEF would assist in the preparations.

When schools closed in March to contain the covid-19 pandemic, teachers were on strike demanding US dollar salaries saying the Zimbabwean dollar had become useless.

But union leaders said government was ambushing them without carrying out proper consultations with teachers and other stakeholders, remarking that it should be noted that schools were not only closed because of the covid-19 pandemic but also because of the spirited struggle by teachers to demand better salaries and working conditions.

“UNICEF is involved but the consultations are constricted and restricted as they are limited to the ministry officials and school heads and as such, more of self-pollination than cross-pollination” said Takavafira Zhou, president of the Zimbabwe Teachers Association, the biggest representative teachers’ body in the country.

Zhou said the writing of examinations was rushed as students were not adequately prepared for the examinations and there had been no adequate preparations to guarantee the health and safety of teachers, pupils and ancillary staff.

He said since the closure of schools on March 24, government radio and television lessons had failed to take off with only teachers’ class and subject WhatsApp groups having been operative, albeit with restrictions as data bundles were expensive and several parents and students had no smartphones to access WhatsApp with.

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“It is our humble professional view that students need three months of intensive learning before writing examinations. We certainly don’t see how the government would procure, let alone place in 10,000 schools covid-19 abatement equipment [testing kits, thermometers, sanitisers and other PPEs] and test millions of students and 136,000 teachers and 50,000 ancillary staff in order to ensure the opening of schools soon and writing of exams in November,” he said.

Zhou said while teachers were more than ready to open schools any day and see their students learning, and writing examinations, they felt this should be done in a professional way that did not compromise teachers’ health, safety and welfare.

“The welfare of teachers must be addressed before the opening of schools, leading to the restoration of their purchasing power parity. Teachers’ October 2018 salaries pegged at US$550 is all that teachers are clamouring for, more so taking cognisance of the fact that Zimbabwe has now redollarised. The current scenario where other sectors with less duties and responsibilities as compared to teachers are earning 5 times the salary of teachers (pegged at $3,800–$4,200) is unviable,” he said.

He said it would be unfortunate for government to continue insisting that the recent discrepancies created between teachers’ salaries and other sectors is a presidential prerogative.

“No amount of presidential prerogative can introduce such callous and acidic discrepancies. This is an insult tailor-made to force teachers to embark on industrial action at a time when schools are supposed to reopen to complete the 2020 academic year. We urge government to mellow down to a more constructive approach amenable to broad consultations, professionalism, reason, facts and consensus rather than adopting a commandist approach,” he fumed.

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He said teachers want robust collective bargaining guaranteed under section 65 of the Constitution as opposed to what he termed “collective begging” under archaic and obsolete laws.

Parents who spoke to Elitsha concurred that examinations should be deferred. Davis Gubudu, whose son is set to write his Grade 7 final results, said the pupils need more time to learn, adding that government had done nothing to ensure their safety from covid-19.

“They have not provided any materials such as sanitisers, masks, gloves and testing kits to schools, yet schools are already overburdened and have been failing to meet their needs outside covid-19,” he said.

Another parent, David Hide, whose son is set to sit for his Ordinary Level final year examinations, said government should have just cancelled the year 2020 and get pupils to start at their current levels next year.

“I thought the government would just push for every child to remain at his/her level and start afresh in January. Those sitting for examinations are the most disadvantaged, so I would suggest that government just cancel off the year 2020 and start afresh next year,” he said.

Recently, in South Africa, activists and parents in different parts of the country called for schools to be closed until the covid-19 curve has been flattened.

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