‘No Mask, No Lessons’: COVID-19’s Impact on Access to Education in Rural Malawi

“I personally see children being turned back from school because they have no masks on a daily basis. This is a big stumbling block to their education.”


It’s midday, and the students of Nyamadzele Primary School in Nsanje, a district in the southern region of Malawi, are moving around the school premises on their lunch break. The temperature is 40°C, but most of the children do not seem to care much about the heat. Some, though, have innocently pulled their masks down under their chins.

Wearing a face mask is required in this school and other schools across Malawi. The phrase, “No mask, no lessons,” likely echoes in many of the children’s minds. But what seems like a simple requirement has proved challenging for some families.

Malawi, a landlocked country with a population of 18 million people is one of the world’s poorest countries, according to World Bank, with a GNI per capita of just US$380 and 51.5 percent of the population living below the national poverty line.

District Commissioner for Nsanje, Dr. Medson Matchaya says that even though Malawi has not been severely hit by the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of the number of cases, it is still heavily affected, considering its high poverty levels.

He explains that most people from this district rely on daily income for food and other basic needs. Most people here run small-scale or micro businesses while others are involved in small-scale agriculture, and they have been struggling to make ends meet due to the economic impacts of the pandemic.

“We have children from such setups who need to go to school but to their parents, having a mask would appear like a luxury,” Matchaya notes.

An average price of an N95 surgical mask in Malawi is K200 (about $0.27). Having a washable mask either requires sewing skills and cloth or buying one at a price of K500 ($0.66), which is expensive for an average rural parent.

As a result, many students in Nsanje say they only have one mask, which is hard to care for and keep clean. Most masks I observed at Nyamadzele Primary School were noticeably dirty. Some children were wearing single-use disposal masks that seemed to have been washed and reused multiple times.

Other students, though, have been turned away because they do not have a face mask at all.

Mathias Chilumba, Chairperson for Malemia Area Development Committee (ADC), a local committee that mobilizes community resources and implements development interventions throughout the Malemia Area, says Nsanje is one of the more underprivileged districts in Malawi, and the issue of strictly admitting children with masks at school has disadvantaged children from poorer families.

“I personally see children being turned back from school because they have no masks on a daily basis. This is a big stumbling block to their education.”

“I personally see children being turned back from school because they have no masks on a daily basis. This is a big stumbling block to their education… I see an average of 10 children a day being turned back from school,” he says, speaking of the wider Malemia area.

The head teacher for Nyamadzele Primary School, MacDonald Jofesi, while acknowledging children without masks have been sent away, says when schools re-opened early this year (as part of Phase Two of the national COVID-19 policy), teachers received lessons on how to handle general sanitation including the new mask requirements.

“We have had learners from poor families, in the villages, who came to school literally without masks because their parents could not afford it. But our principle is strictly ‘No mask, no lessons,’ so such children are turned back,” he says.

The head teacher adds that the school management committee has managed to get some masks for needy children.

Still, on average at this school, two children per day continue to be sent back due to not adhering to the mask rule. “But I feel it’s not always that they are lacking but rather,” says the head teacher, “they are just too childish and they don’t want to put on a mask.”

Ministry of Education, Science and Technology Public Relations Officer, Chikondi Chimala confirms that a child without a mask is not allowed to attend lessons.

“It’s the Ministry’s wish that no child misses any lesson. But at the same time, we have the obligation to protect every child that is in school from contracting and spreading the deadly COVID-19,” he explains.

Chimala says that if the Ministry relaxes this requirement, schools might become hot zones for COVID-19 infections. “After safeguarding the right to life, then we need to balance this by providing education for all. That’s why there are measures in place to ensure that no child misses lessons due to not having masks.”

He points out that the Ministry has conducted various trainings for traditional leaders, teachers, local mothers groups, and all key stakeholders in the education sector on COVID-19 preventive measures.

Chimala adds, “We provided trainings and materials to respective schools and they are responsible for their own management of allocated COVID-19 prevention funds, which they partly have used for the purchase of hand washing facilities, posters, cloths to make masks, and other COVID-19 related issues.”

In Nsanje, this support seems to have helped, but it may not be enough.

“We were told that those that don’t have masks should go and get masks from the head teacher’s office so I got mine from there,” says Chimwemwe Chapo, a standard 3 pupil at Nyamadzele Primary School. She is one of the pupils I spotted wearing a very dilapidated mask.

Still, Ward Councilor for Nsanje South West, Boniface Chimpokosela, says the district is so impoverished that if government, civil society organizations, and school committees do not find solutions faster, learners from poor families will end up dropping out from school.

“I would advise the teachers not to send back pupils without masks but rather link them up with relevant authorities within the district so that they may be assisted accordingly,” he says.

As Chimpokosela suggests, there are local efforts to help, but they also have limited resources.

The Malemia ADC, in particular, has mobilized the area Mothers Group, a grouping of women whose primary role is to assist in keeping children, especially girls, in school, as well as child protection committees to ensure that they move quickly to find a permanent solution to providing masks for the children who need them.

The local Parent Teacher Association (PTA) is also stepping in, often working hand-in-hand with the Mothers Group. As Headmaster Jofesi explains, “Things have improved after we held a Parents Teachers Association meeting where we tried to find immediate solutions to this problem.” The school’s PTA Chairperson, Abraham Chikoti says, “We have had the Mothers Group assisting us in this area, although it’s not been enough, but they have tried their level best.”

Mothers Group Secretary, Christina Mandala says her group, together with other crucial school management teams, underwent a training on making cloth masks before the schools fully re-opened in October.

“Our grouping has managed to sew 18 masks which we submitted to the headmaster’s office. We are, however, unable to make more masks because we don’t have money to buy cloth and other sewing materials. We made these 18 masks from the cloth that remained after the training,” she says.

Mandala adds that the grouping was hoping to make over 200 masks in order to support the majority of needy children in the area and ensure they all have at least two masks.

“We are a rural-based people so it’s obvious that there are many children who are lacking masks. COVID-19 has really devastated the communities.”

“We are a rural-based people so it’s obvious that there are many children who are lacking masks,” she says. “COVID-19 has really devastated the communities. Since the use of masks is a new thing to all of us, it’s a cost that has been added to already strained families.”


About the Author

Josephine Chinele is a Malawian multi-award winning journalist with wide investigative journalism work experience. She has worked for Times Group and Malawi News Agency, Malawi’s biggest and oldest media houses. Josephine is also a renowned local and international Freelance Journalist. She’s a regular contributor for Good Governance Africa (Africa In Fact), Bhekisisa, and CS Monitor, among others. Follow her on Twitter: @JosephineChinel.


The views and opinions expressed in this publication are solely those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of COVID-19 Africa Watch or any affiliated organization.

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