The Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly disrupted learning among other effects. On 17th March 2020, the Government announced, among other Covid-19 measures, the indefinite closure of all schools in a bid to curb the spread of the virus. In response, some private schools, especially in urban areas started providing online lessons to fill the learning gaps left. On 8th May 2020, the President announced some measures to relax restrictions and to resume school for examination classes on 1st of June 2020. The pronouncement was made following a period of relatively low confirmed cases and high recovery rates around 66 percent, almost twice the global recovery rate (34 percent). As examination classes resume this week, it still remains unclear as to when non-examination classes will resume.
The indefinite closure of schools has not only disrupted learning but has also left over one million children who would usually benefit from Zambia’s School Feeding Programme (SFP) at risk of hunger. The SFP was initiated in Zambia in 2003 by the World Food Programme (WFP) following the 2002 food crisis brought by the drought spell around the same time. It aimed to improve school attendance and enrolment using meals to attract students from vulnerable homes. The programme also aimed to improve the nutritional status of the children as well as their cognitive and academic performance.
The programme guarantees vulnerable children in participating schools one high-energy, protein-rich cooked meal a day. The meal which is given to children in all grades during the school days comprises mainly of maize and beans. The meals contribute greatly to the nutritional status of these children as most of them are from poor households that already face the risk of food insecurity. However, this is a school based programme and cannot be provided if children are not in school as is the case now for those in non-examination classes.
The programme initially targeted community schools and was later extended to public schools in collaboration with the Government. Currently, the SFP is being implemented in 39 districts in all ten provinces, covering over 2,600 schools in both rural and urban areas. Participating schools are selected based on existing poverty levels in the area as well as school enrolment, attendance and dropout rates.
There is strong evidence that the programme has been effective in achieving its aims. A 2018 evaluation of the SFP by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) revealed that the provision of meals had a positive impact on the schooling outcomes such as increased pass grade, increased attendance and reduced dropout rates. As further evidence, WFP estimates that countries stand to gain a US$10 US dollar return for every US$1 US dollar invested in school meals measured by improvements in education, health and productivity gains.
It is expected that the socio-economic effects of the COVID 19 pandemic will worsen the poverty situation of already vulnerable households. The impact will be compounded for several households that were already at risk of food insecurity pre-COVID-19. The 2019 In-Depth Vulnerability and Needs Assessment Report estimated that between October 2019 and March 2020, 2.3 million Zambians would face a food security crisis.
Since the first COVID-19 cases were reported, Zambia has continued to record high recovery rates implying that the health-related impacts will not be as high an initially anticipated. However, the continued rises in new cases makes it unclear as to when the non-examination classes will resume. The longer that non-examination classes stay away from school, the higher the risk of hunger among vulnerable children and consequently, the elevated risk of malnutrition.
The planned resumption of examination classes provides an opportunity to also resume the SFP for non-examination classes. For non-examination classes, the Government must put in place measures to ensure that vulnerable children continue to receive these meals. This should be done by allowing children to collect meals from schools. Collection times could be staggered so as to limit the numbers of children attended to at any given time. This approach has been used in other countries such as Nigeria where the SFP continued despite the closure of schools. Additionally, the provision of hand washing facilities must be enhanced as this is a key preventive measure for COVID-19. However, caution should be exercised for schools in the epicentres and it may be necessary to exempt them. Coincidentally, majority of vulnerable children are from areas yet to record COVID-19 cases.
By: Miselo Bwalya
The author is a researcher at the Zambia Institute for Policy Analysis and Research (ZIPAR). For details contact: The Executive Director, ZIPAR, MNDP Complex, Cnr John Mbita & Nationalist Roads, P.O. Box 50782, Lusaka. Telephone: +260 211 252559. Email: email@example.com