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Zimbabwe: Trade unions win court battle on school re-opening

The Government of Zimbabwe announced that schools would reopen, already for examinations in late June and move forward in steps in the following weeks to re-open schools despite risks of an intensification of COVID-19 infections. Education trade unions challenged the re-openings as unsafe and premature and called for social dialogue in order to ensure safe re-opening. However, failing to get cooperation from the Government, the two largest education unions, EI member organisations ZIMTA and PTUZ, joined by several smaller unions, took the government to court. The court decided the case in favour of the unions. The Government says that it will comply with the decision and meet the high court deadline.

Zimbabwe education unions opposed school reopening as proposed by the Government. Their principal arguments were that the reopening of schools was dangerous because:
  • The teacher-pupil ratio was too high to make social distancing possible with existing school facilities and arrangements. The official figure for the ratio is 1 to 40, however the unions argue that the real ratio is often 1 to 70 or even 1 to 100. This was already a serous education issue well before the pandemic made it a major health risk. 
  • Adequate and safe transport for students and teachers was not available, which added additional distancing and sanitation dangers before and after school hours. 
  • There was a lack of logistical preparedness. School facilities required fumigation and other sanitation measures on a massive scale. Contributing to that danger was the fact that many schools, colleges and universities had been used as quarantine centres. Inadequate supplies of hand sanitisers and face masks and insufficient personnel made schools dangerous as well. Many schools, particularly those in rural areas, were without clean running water or regular supplies of it. 
 
Trade unions argued that many parents, students, and teachers were anxious and fearful over re-opening under those conditions as schools could become hotspots and make infection rates shoot up. In neighbouring South Africa, some schools that have been opened have had to be closed again as infections have surged. 
 
The decision of the High Court of Zimbabwe, announced 19 June, was that before reopening, the Government must provide personal protective equipment for teachers and learners, clean and sanitise all facilities and follow safety practices as prescribed by the World Health Organisation, as well as providing for testing and adequate sanitation facilities.
 
The Government responded that it will meet all of the conditions of the High Court as well as its deadlines and promised to allocate significant resources for that purpose.