Why schools may not be reopened until next year

Children tour Impala Park in Kisumu on June 21. Many parks have seen increased visits by children since the closure of schools due to Covid-19 pandemic. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

A high-level meeting appeared to rule out the reopening of schools this year.

During a virtual summit, President Uhuru Kenyatta also told governors the decision to re-open the economy will be informed by counties' preparedness to respond to Covid-19 infections.  

The president chaired the summit that brought together Deputy President William Ruto as well as 46 governors to seek a consensus on safety measures to be enforced prior to reopening the country currently under a nationwide night curfew and travel restrictions.

Discussions at the forum indicated schools are far from reopening this year as experts warned about the challenge of enforcing social distance in 40,000 schools with a population of 14 million, and the risk to the lives of children should schools resume before the peak of coronavirus.

Uhuru reminded Kenyans that it was not the first time for the school calendar to be disrupted, as such an experience was witnessed in 1982 after the August failed coup, which saw learning suspended until the following year. 

Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha said looking at the population of students versus facilities, it was difficult to implement social distancing in schools and that informs the reluctance to reopen the learning institutions.

“I will advise not to open schools when the infections from the disease are rising. We propose that school clusters be attached to a health facility before we can open,” said Magoha.

Prof Magoha, who is a medic by profession, posed: “When a child has fever what do you do to avoid panic in the school? Do you shut down the school and send all pupils home? Pupils may have fever from other ailments, not necessarily from Covid-19."

It emerged only exam candidates - Standard Eight and Form Four students - may be allowed back to school to write their exams as their 11 million counterparts stay at home longer. Kenya has 12 million pupils and students in schools.

“We have to fashion ourselves towards the new normal until we have a vaccine. It is too risky to open schools and risk the lives of young Kenyans. Let us look at possibility of candidates only who number about 1.5 million and open up for them to write exams,” suggested Ruto, who followed proceedings from his Karen office.

But were the schools to reopen, Magoha explained measures which are meant at reducing spread of the disease would be observed, saying pupils and students will not share equipment or books or even masks. 

Schools will have to undergo regular fumigation and cleaning with dedicated water supply to compliment hygiene efforts.

Teams were tasked to explore guidelines to inform possible reopening of the economy, schools and worship places in early July with strict health protocols.

All eyes will be on President Kenyatta on July 6, during an address to the nation when he is expected to announce new measures to fashion Kenya around the new normal of the reality of working and living with Covid-19. 

Technical teams dealing with various sectors and interest groups have up to July 5 to deliver ‘irreducible minimum’ protocols to be adopted in the phased approach to opening up the country.

Sources intimated curfew may still be in force for yet another month after all, but travel between counties may be allowed.

The president said the decision will largely be determined by the counties capacity to effectively respond to new cases of Covid-19 imported into their territories.  

"County readiness to respond to new imported cases of infection will largely determine our national readiness to re-open the country as a whole. I say this because the nation is the sum total of all the 47 counties. If the counties have met the necessary thresholds, then the nation will be ready to re-open," Uhuru told the meeting of the national and county governments coordinating summit that was also attended by representatives of religious and business sectors. 

“There are things which cannot wait. We have churches, mosques and temples waiting to reopen for prayers, but we must develop and agree on the protocols for each sector," Ruto said.

During the summit, also addressed by Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe, a progress report on the roll-out of the minimum Covid-19 response measures required ahead of the re-opening of the economy was presented.

The report was presented by Kakamega Governor Wycliffe Oparanya, who is also the chairperson of the Council of Governors. 

Mandera Governor Ali Roba called for increased testing of capacity for each county as well as livelihood support for the vulnerable families.

In his report, Oparanya said counties had attained a total of 6,898 isolation beds against the national target of 30,500 units. 

He said 12 counties had met the 300 isolation beds threshold per county, while 34 devolved units were on course to meet the target within the month. 

On human resources, Oparanya reported that 16,914 health personnel had been trained on Covid-19 management, among them 59,449 community health volunteers.

The governor said 36 counties have a cumulative sum of 343 ICU beds while 28 counties have a total of 337 ventilators.  

Universities may reopen but with strict adherence to social distancing, screening before lectures, wearing of masks and strict protocols expected to be unveiled on July 6.

The Interfaith Council chaired by Catholic Bishop Andrew Muheria will work on worship protocols for all churches, mosques and religious gatherings with tough rules which may admit only 30 people per service, sources privy to the discussions said.

The business community are equally tasked with developing protocols for each industry with focus on self-policing and implementation of health guidelines.

Kisumu Governor Anyang’ Nyong’o challenged the summit to tell the president the truth about the need to lift restrictions. “The fact is that rural markets have never been closed at all. They continue to operate even without following social distancing protocols."

And there are irreducible minimums that must be observed by each sector before the country can be opened up fully.

There was a unanimous strong push for local and international flights to resume to ease travel and revive the dying tourism sector.

Narok Governor Samuel Tunai said the wildebeest migration was underway and Kenya was missing out on opportunity to cash in.

Light moments

There were light moments when Bishop Muheria said what happens when a congregant under a tree has signs of fever. "How do you isolate such a patient?" And he said his interfaith council had resolved that "such a congregant may be isolated under another tree.”

The conference invited the private sector and interfaith council to deliberate on critical issues facing the nation before the economy can be opened up.

Treasury Cabinet Secretary Ukur Yatani painted a grim picture, saying they were not collecting revenue because of the depressed economy and there was an urgent need to reopen and revive businesses.

Only Kirinyaga Governor Anne Waiguru missed out on the session and sent apologies through Oparanya, as she attended to her battles against an impeachment motion currently before the Senate.

“We shall facilitate phased reopening of the economy but 34 counties that have isolation bed shortfalls must be ready within 11 days," said Uhuru.