UNICEF Kenya Representative, Maniza Zaman. [Courtesy]

Children have endured difficult times since Covid-19 arrived in Kenya. In 2020, school closures interrupted learning for over 17 million children and increased risk of violence, child labour and child marriage.

Mental well-being suffered, and it was encouraging to see the safe return of children to schools in 2021 and subsequent exam results – in which 893 candidates scored grade A, up from 627 in 2019.

But for many children, the return to school has not yet meant a return to normality. First, because of the learning loss younger and rural children experienced and second, because some children have not returned yet.

Let’s take learning loss. This is a disturbing phenomenon whereby children’s education, rather than being paused during school closures, actually goes into reverse. Several reports have now shown this at the global and regional level such as ‘Building back better to avert a learning catastrophe’ in the International Journal of Educational Development (July 2021).

Pupils washing their hands in-fight against Covid-19 at Oloolua Primary School, Ngong Town. Jan 7, 2020. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

Here in Kenya, ‘Measuring the Impact of COVID-19 on Learning in Rural Kenya’ by Whizz Education (April 2021) found that 53 per cent of students showed declines in their levels of maths knowledge, or ‘maths age’. The average loss among those students was 13 months – meaning their maths age had regressed by more than a year.

Breaking these results down further, learning loss was greater in the lower grades, which is likely why we didn’t see this reflected in exam results. Girls were more impacted than boys, and those in poorer rural areas more than their counterparts in richer urban areas – thereby increasing inequalities.

And if children lost maths skills, we can assume they also lost reading, writing and other skills. None of this is irreversible – or unique to Kenya – but it does illustrate the learning mountain the vulnerable learners now need to climb.

So what can be done? In the short term, we need a remedial programme to help affected children catch up. In the longer term, education system reform is needed, including improved access to digital and remote learning. To this end, Unicef’s ‘Re-imagine Education’ initiative is revolutionising learning and foundational skills, to provide a quality education for every child through Internet connectivity, digital learning and engagement.

The growth of technology and online learning tools means we now have power to deliver education anywhere, at any time. But more than half the world’s children are on the wrong side of the digital divide. Modern education should rebuild the basic skills lost during school closures – maths, reading and writing – as well as developing the skills in problem-solving, creativity and critical thinking that young people need to forge successful careers.

At Unicef, we believe digital learning should be part of a basic package of essential services for every child. Here in Kenya, the new Competency-Based Curriculum will provide school children with many of these skills. The government has also committed to connecting every school to the Internet by 2030.

Grade Four Pupils at Bidii Primary School, Nairobi. January 4, 2020. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

Kenya is a leader in GIGA, a global partnership for school connectivity, and Unicef has already connected 75 schools to the Internet, with a plan to connect at least 1,085 more this year, reaching over 360,000 children. It may be a drop in the ocean compared to the needs, but valuable lessons are being learnt – and more partners urgently needed.

Next week, Kenya and the UK will co-host the Global Education Summit. This will be a key moment for the global community to support quality education for all children. World leaders will be asked to make five-year pledges to support the Global Partnership for Education’s work to help transform education systems in up to 90 countries, including Kenya.

So, as we applaud the resilience and determination of our children back in school and learning, we should not lose sight of these longer-term objectives. I look forward to a future where every Kenyan child has the opportunity to access blended learning, combining the best features of in-person and virtual learning. Our children deserve a world-class education – let’s make sure they get one.

-Maniza Zaman is the UNICEF Representative in Kenya