Organised teachers in Cameroon have warned the government that a resumption of classes on 1 June carried out without sufficient preliminary planning would put the educational community in danger. They have especially insisted on reduced class sizes and the provision of masks and hand sanitizer.
In the view of Roger Kaffo, General Secretary of the Syndicat National Autonome de l'Enseignement Secondaire (SNAES) and Deputy General Secretary of the Fédération des Syndicats de l'Enseignement et de la Recherche – one of Education International’s member organisations to which the SNAES is affiliated, the way that the COVID-19 crisis has been managed by the public authorities so far provides little in the way of reassurance.
He laments the fact that government communication regarding the mapping and progression of the pandemic remains minimal. Contagion hotspots have not been identified and infection statistics provide a poor reflection of the reality in Cameroon’s major towns and cities. Treatment of the sick remains opaque, in a situation where the health system seems to be overwhelmed.
Many concerns regarding the health of teachers and students
Regarding the reopening of schools and other educational institutions, Kaffo notes that there are still many questions to be answered: “When 1 June 2020 comes around, will schools have been disinfected? Will teachers and pupils be provided with masks and hand sanitizer and will they have access to running water and soap? Will school authorities be equipped to take the temperatures of all those who come through school doors or those of other places of learning? Will the appropriate measures be taken so that preventative measures are respected in classrooms and on campuses?”
Overcrowded classes, a persistent issue
Kaffo went on to stress that “the shambles that we are seeing seems to be on a par with the lack of common sense”, as institution heads were first told to organise classes of 24 pupils, making it possible to respect social distancing. However, as secondary schools in the major towns and cities cannot limit class sizes to 24 pupils due to a lack of classrooms – some would need an extra 40 to 50 classrooms to do so – the public authorities then raised this number to 50 pupils per class.
In Kaffo’s words, “You can clearly see that this choice has been based on managerial concerns rather than scientific principles”. “How do we contain the spread of the virus in these cramped and confined spaces with such large class sizes? There is a risk the virus will spread like wildfire. Should this happen, it will find its way into homes and spread on a massive scale.”
Kaffo has therefore already expressed his concerns that two to three weeks after the resumption of classes, we might regret the badly thought out measures taken.
He has therefore consequently suggested taking action immediately by going back to 24-25 pupils per class. Where this is not possible, he suggests staggering the return to school based on the exam schedule.
He insists that “For us, this is not only about a successful end of school-year report, but also, and most importantly it is about saving lives!”.
Masks and hand sanitizer gel, vectors of inequality
Regarding masks and hand sanitizer, Kaffo stressed profit-seeking behaviour that has surrounded their provision and has emphasized the importance of ensuring that all children receive equal treatment when it comes to protection from the virus.
“For this reason”, he states, “and given the well-established inequalities in income, the State must ensure that every child who enters a school of any kind, wears a mask and can access soap and water, hand sanitizer or an alternative type of approved disinfectant.”
He has also called on teachers to mobilise for the health and safety of their students: “We say “State” but we know that we too are the State and that everything is connected in a chain. But in this chain, we don’t all have the same responsibilities. If the means are managed at another level, we will at least be able to ensure the safety of our students from 1 June at the level we are working at.”
The Kawasaki crisis (an apparent impact of COVID 19 on children, which is like an earlier affliction of this name) which is currently affecting France and the United States and resulting in deaths, should already be a reminder to us, he continued.
Kaffo also highlighted the fact that the unions had contacted the Prime Minister about these issues, but had received no response.
He went on to address the appeals for help made by the ministers in charge of Education and the Minister for Decentralization and Local Development on the one hand, and of the decentralized local authorities on the other.
According to these communications the Cameroonian education system would not have the means to respond to COVID-19 and, in order to ensure the safety of students, teachers and education support workers, would have to rely on “an intervention in the form of a handout which would be even more uncertain since we know that those asked regularly complain about lacking the resources they need for their essential activities.”
Kaffo acknowledged that the Minister of Labour and Social Security had entered into communication with the teaching unions and had been given a list of their most important demands, classed in order of priority.
However, he concluded by asking “what will come of this list of priority measures sent to the Prime Minister by the teaching unions? We have to hope that, in light of government priorities, these demands will not be deemed unreasonable.”