The Gambia: Social dialogue at heart of COVID-19 response

published 17 June 2020 updated 19 June 2020

The Gambia Teachers Union has been proactive in its advocacy and activities in response to the COVID-19 epidemic as it turns its focus to guaranteeing a safe return to schools and quality education for all.

The Gambia Teachers Union (GTU) has called for close collaboration between the government and the union to develop strategies to address the impact of COVID-19 on the education sector. This collaboration must deal with the consequences of closing teacher training and other higher education institutions, bearing in mind existing teacher shortage.

In a statement, GTU General Secretary Marie Antoinette Corr-Jack said the GTU is actively engaging with public authorities through social dialogue to plan the reopening of schools. They used Education International’s Guidelines on reopening schools and education institutions during these high-level discussions.

She said that, globally, Ministries of Health and Education should work together to develop and communicate well-defined timelines to reopen schools, giving clear benchmarks and standards.

Global impact of COVID-19

The impact of COVID-19 on education worldwide has been devastating, according to the GTU. UNESCO has reported “that over 1.5 billion students had been affected due to school closures in 165 countries as of 26 March, which is more than 87 per cent of all registered students”, said Corr-Jack. “Also, over 63 million teachers and large numbers of education support personnel have also been affected by the pandemic. Given these unprecedented developments, the COVID-19 has become an education crisis.”

The length of school closures has caused major disruptions in the education of millions of students, she said. Measures need to be put in place to minimise the impact of closures on the provision of education. “An appropriate response to COVID-19 in the education sector should take into account the rights and best interests of students, teachers, and education support personnel, and involve the union in developing containment and recovery measures,” said Corr-Jack.

Protection of salaries, terms, and conditions

In its negotiations, the GTU has stressed that the salaries and terms and conditions of teachers and education support personnel at all levels, including those on fixed or short-term contracts, should be protected, during and after the COVID-19 crisis. Educators must be remunerated as usual during closure periods, and, to minimise uncertainty and related stress and anxiety, education authorities should also ensure regular and timely information and updates to all employees in the sector.

“The trauma associated with COVID-19 can be devastating for students and educators, some of whom have lost a loved one or a colleague,” Corr-Jack said. She urged the government to ensure the provision of psychosocial support, including counselling services to all affected students, teachers, and education support personnel, to ensure their wellbeing, including their mental health.

She appealed “to our members and the public to fully abide by official measures and instructions being put in place to curb the spread of the virus, while urging people to continue social distancing and frequent washing of hands and use of sanitisers”.

Support to students for accessing remote learning

The GTU has also worked vigorously on behalf of students unable to access a radio to participate in distance learning – there is a poverty rate of 84 per cent within The Gambian population. It received funding from the UK-based Steve Sinnott Foundation and distributed 510 solar radios to students. It also secured many books through Book Aid – a leading international book donation and library development charity that gives 24 million people around the world access to books. The union distributed these books to students and was thanked by the Ministry of Education for these efforts.

Support to private schools’ teachers

The GTU also advocated on behalf of teachers in private schools who have not been receiving their salaries because parents have not been able to pay school fees.

The GTU leader urged The Gambian government “to come to the aid of schools worst hit by this pandemic. The education system is at a very high risk of total collapse without government intervention or bailout, in one form or another. We therefore hope that the government will not only listen to our plea but will accord priority and urgency to the private schools with respect to the expected intervention.”

Support to girls’ education

The education union is also doing media outreach via radio to encourage parents neither to marry girls off nor to send them out to engage in income-generating activities. The union has encouraged parents to ensure that girls participate in distance learning.

In support of this, representatives, and staff from the GTU recorded radio spots calling on parents and communities to be “vigilant, observant and believe any children who report sexual violence or abuse”. They further informed communities about a telephone hotline to report cases of sexual violence or abuse.

“Whatever the challenges, know that, together, we shall overcome!” stressed Corr-Jack. “This fight cannot be won without community participation. Let us be each other’s keeper. I have no doubt that, together, we shall fight and defeat the Coronavirus disease in The Gambia.”