When Mbayani II Junior Primary School was constructed in 2015, government and concerned stakeholders thought that this was going to address congestion at the sole primary school in one of Blantyre’s populous township.
Five years down the line, it seems the situation at Mbayani 1 Primary School, which was established in 1998, is far from being solved as the number of learners keeps on increasing such that the school currently has 8 484 learners.
Head teacher Lami Mizere says the Covid-19 pandemic has also escalated the congestion at the school as it has to use the 32 classrooms available to accommodate 92 classes of Standard One to Seven learners.
Due to the inadequate number of classrooms at the school, some learners learn under trees and improvised shelters.
Mizere says: “Because we have to follow Covid-19 preventive measures, most specifically physical distancing, we divided our classes into several classes so that learners should be sitting at least one metre apart.
“So, for instance, Standard One was divided into nine classes, Standard Three was divided into 13 classes and Standard Seven was divided into 17 classes.”
To make do with the 32 classrooms the school has, Mizere says learners from Standards Five, Six and Seven go to school every day.
However, Standard Seven learners go to school in the morning up to lunch hour. When they knock off, Standard Five and Six learners go to school and learn from 12.30pm until 4pm.
Says Mizere: “For the other classes, on the days that we have Standard One and Three learners, Standard Two and Four learners are home.
“For them, we are using this staggering mode because we cannot manage to have them all every day, even if it means saying some should be coming in the morning and others in the afternoon.”
Blantyre Urban district education manager Anita Kaliu says the congestion at Mbayani 1 Primary School reflects the situation in most schools in the city.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has just exposed the challenges that school authorities grapple with. There is very little space to accommodate learners in almost all the schools in Blantyre due to high enrollment rates and inadequate classrooms,” she says.
While the congestion may seem a problem for primary schools only as they are mostly the ones synonymous with high enrollment rates, Zingwangwa Secondary School head teacher Steve Kungala thinks otherwise.
He says secondary schools are also facing the same challenge as they have to split classes to ensure that Covid-19 preventive measures are being followed and students are having classes in safe environments.
Says Kungala: “As a school that already operates on a double-shift basis, the space challenges are also doubled during this pandemic.
“To meet the Covid-19 prevention measures that the government prescribed to us, we had to split the classes which means that we have one shift taking away all the available classrooms.”
Nevertheless, he says the school, which has 1 084 students against 12 classrooms, has tried its best and at least each and every student is learning under a roof and safe conditions.
Deputy Minister of Education Madalitso Kambauwa-Wirima agrees that most schools in the country are indeed grappling with space and this is because no one knew that there will be Covid-19 which would require more space than available.
She says: “This pandemic was sudden, it came when we were not prepared and the space that we have in all the schools across the country is the same one that was there before.
“However, we are trying to solve this by encouraging double streaming and sometimes even the triple streaming in a lot of schools in order to ensure that Covid-19 preventive measures are being followed religiously.”
Kambauwa-Wirima says until such a time when infrastructure in most schools is expanded, schools will have to work with whatever resources are available now.
This, the deputy minister says, is to ensure that learning should not stop again like it did in March this year when schools went on a seven-month long break as a precautionary measure to tackle the spread of Covid-19.
“What is impressive is that despite the space challenges, issues of hand-washing with soap or water with chlorine and wearing of masks by all learners and teachers are being adhered to.
“If we continue like this, then we will be alright in the time being,” says Kambauwa-Wirima.