A new momentum for healthy, green schools in Lusaka
Since the start of the COVID pandemic, the Safe Back to School campaign has shown what’s possible when people come together around a shared aim. As COVID recedes, the campaign’s partners are seizing the momentum to broaden and deepen school health initiatives.
There are plenty of signs that changes are afoot at Mumana Basic School in Lusaka.
When pupils arrive each morning at the school gates, a guard greets them with a smile and a bottle of hand sanitizer. A quick squirt and a rub of the hands and they’re on their way, fanning out across the large schoolyard. As they head towards their classrooms, the children pass by newly planted trees, bright blue water drums fitted with taps for handwashing, and color-coded bins for different types of waste. Although no longer required, some pupils wear face coverings. The school encourages anyone with a cough or a sniffle to don a mask to protect others from germs.
‘I want the learners at this school to grow up paying attention to hygiene and taking care of nature,’ says Priscilla Mubanga, the head teacher at Mumana and driving force behind the school’s growing focus on health and the environment. ‘If the young generation grows up appreciating the environment and practicing good hygiene at home and at school, in the future they might not have to face the kind of challenges we are facing today.’
A silver lining to the COVID pandemic
For all the devastation it wrought, the COVID-19 pandemic had a silver lining for schools like Mumana: it concentrated attention and resources on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services and brought home to the importance of simple behaviours which, when practiced regularly, can prevent the transmission of disease. Infection prevention and control in schools is suddenly on everyone’s minds.
As the pandemic recedes in intensity, it is leaving behind a changed landscape. Teachers, learners and parents see that the five ‘golden rules’ which helped steer Zambia – and its schools – through the pandemic make good sense even in non-pandemic times. And now that the educational and public health authorities have caught people’s attention on the importance of hygiene and health in school, they are seizing the opportunity to broaden the focus to topics ranging from menstrual health management to food safety, vaccines and solid waste management, in line with growing attention to the concept of One Health.
A boost for school health, thanks in part to the Safe Back to School Campaign
Some of the changes which Priscilla Mubanga has introduced at her school date back to the early stages of the COVID pandemic and were aided by the Safe Back to School (SB2S) campaign. The campaign, which was launched in September 2020 and will soon enter its fourth phase, has been supporting schools across Lusaka to improve their WASH facilities and to integrate hygiene practices into everyday routines.
SB2S is a joint undertaking of the Lusaka City Council, the Lusaka District Education Board, the Ministry of Health, WaterAid and the Natural Resources Stewardship Programme (NatuReS), which is implemented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).
When COVID hit, this loose consortium of partners was already working together under the auspices of the Green Schools Partnership Programme, an initiative of the Lusaka Water Security Initiative which aims to achieve clean, green and healthy school environments by 2030. Its members saw an opportunity to build upon existing efforts and to provide practical support to schools which faced significant challenges to re-open after a four-month nationwide school closure.
‘COVID crept up on us while we were sleeping,’ says Mumba Cheepa, a planning officer with the Lusaka District Education Board, which is responsible for providing and supervising education services in more than 700 schools across the sprawling city. She remembers the feelings of fear, anxiety and anger in the community and among educators when the government announced that schools would be partially reopened for learners in selected classes who needed to prepare to write examinations. Education officials and head teachers had to work hard to secure and hold the trust of teachers, learners and parents who were far from certain that it was safe to return to the classroom.
The consortium became ‘a very crucial vehicle for us to move forward,’ she recalls. ‘On our own, none of us could do much, but when we came together and pooled our efforts, we found we could achieve quite a lot. This has been one of the best things I’ve ever witnessed in terms of synergies.’
180 schools benefit from better WASH infrastructure and hygiene education
Thus far the SB2S campaign has supported school health interventions at 180 schools which have been identified by the District Education Board as vulnerable on the basis of their size, WASH infrastructure, or their enrolment of learners with special needs. Although the measures were tailored in response to the COVID pandemic, they were broad enough to be relevant for other public health threats, such as cholera and schistosomiasis, which regularly affect residents of Lusaka.
One major focus was on handwashing. WaterAid facilitated the installation of ‘jumbo’ handwashing stations at schools which did not have enough handwashing points. These simple, but robust metal frames hold refillable water drums which make it possible for multiple learners to wash their hands at the same time. Schools which did not have adequate funds to buy consumables also received soap, hand sanitizer, masks, thermometers, cleaning supplies, waste bins and other supplies to meet their immediate reopening needs.
Another focus was on hygiene education – an area which is often neglected, according to Bwalya Nachula and Kangwa Chinkutele of WaterAid, although it should be a public health priority. As part of the campaign, WaterAid provided hygiene behaviour change materials with clear, simple messages about hygiene at school, such as washing hands with soap, using safe drinking water, and practicing good food hygiene. The package, which was designed in cooperation with the Ministry of Health and endorsed by the Ministry of Education, includes informational materials, posters, games, tools and interactive activities. Guidance counsellors and teachers from participating schools were trained to use the materials in their schools and to teach their colleagues to work with them as well. The hygiene behaviour change materials can be used flexibly. For example, during times when COVID infections were on the rise, teachers were encouraged to adapt the content to stress messages particularly relevant to COVID, such mask wearing and seeking medical care immediately upon feeling ill.
According to Mumba Cheepa, of the District Education Board, the mix of interventions was a key to the campaign’s success. Each educational message was linked to concrete opportunities to practice behaviours. ‘We were teaching a lot of things from scratch and it would not have been enough to simply give information to the children,’ she says. ‘We had to get practical. We handed them buckets with water and soap, showed them exactly how to do the things we’d been talking about and let them practice.’
Strengthening linkages between schools and communities
SB2S campaign went beyond schools to reach community members, as well. Using radio jingles, television spots and drama performances at public places, such as markets and clinics, it spread information about COVID and healthy behaviours. These activities not only reinforced public health messaging, but also helped to build confidence in the community that school reopening was being done in a careful and responsible way.
For the GIZ advisors at the Natural Resources Stewardship Programme, the Safe Back to School Campaign was a prime example of what can happen when many different types of people and organisations come together around a common aim. ‘In Zambia there is sometimes a tendency for people to look at a problem and expect the government to deal with it,’ says Wyness Zimba, a technical advisor who helped to coordinate the campaign. ‘We believe that stewardship means jointly taking care of resources, such as water, that we all need. It’s not about pointing at others to do something; it’s about joining hands with others at the local level.’
In this spirit, the campaign worked directly with community members to fabricate, install and maintain the handwashing stations at participating schools. Twenty women from low-income communities were trained in metal fabrication through an 11-week programme conducted in affiliation with the University of Zambia. The women, who have since registered themselves into two cooperatives with support from WaterAid, now have the skills needed to perform maintenance on the handwashing stations – should any difficulties arise – and to fabricate more for other schools or institutions which might like to have them. This not only opens up new economic opportunities for the women, but also strengthens linkages between schools and the surrounding communities.
Resilient schools in a resilient system
While focused specifically on COVID, the Safe Back to School campaign also had a broader objective in mind: to support schools to become more resilient in the face of future challenges, whether these take the form of natural disasters, disease outbreaks or another type of shock.
‘Resilience doesn’t necessarily mean having everything in place to respond to whatever problem might arise,’ says Anna Kristina Kanathigoda, a technical advisor with the BMZ-funded Fit for School Africa Initiative, which will be supporting the fourth phase of the campaign. ‘A resilient school is one that has mechanisms to react, and that is part of a larger system.’
The SB2S campaign, and the Green School Partnerships Programme of which it is a part, has helped to strengthen the elements of this system in Lusaka. As a result of their involvement in the campaign, schools now have a better understanding of the roles and mandates of local authorities, particularly as these relate to public health issues, and know where they can turn for guidance and support. At the same time, governing bodies, such as the District Education Board, have developed greater capacity to coordinate and steer multi-stakeholder responses to complex problems.
‘When COVID came, we had to build up our systems from scratch,’ says Mumba Cheepa, of the District Education Board. ‘Now we want to be sure to keep those systems in place and to further improve upon them so that our schools will be more prepared next time.’