Over the past decade, the Government has taken measures aimed at making education accessible to all in Kenya, as well as ensuring that regional special needs and disparities are met. However, the Covid-19 pandemic which led to closures of all schools in Kenya in March has clawed back the gains made by compromising the quality of education and propagated inequality in the provision of the public service.
The closure of schools has deepened the learning crisis and exposed vulnerable children to a heightened risk of suffering and exploitation. Parents adopted e-learning and distance learning as one way keeping their children engaged with school work. It is, however, important to note that schools served both as places of learning and places for children’s growth and development. It is important to examine how prolonged closure of schools has affected learners.
Parents who are economically advantaged have adopted e-learning as a way of ensuring continuing education for their children. E-learning has become a burden to the parents, who have to play the dual role of parenting and teaching simultaneously.
One drawback of remote learning is inaccessible to children from poor background whose parents do not have smartphones, television sets and radios. Moreover, most households in rural areas do not have electricity and internet connectivity. Furthermore, remote learning does not cater to the needs of some students such as slow learners and learners with special needs.
Experience with previous pandemics such as HIV/Aids shows the loss of a parent or children whose parents/guardians are critically ill have diminished chances of effective schooling. The absence of a parent in the life of a child might result in malnutrition, non-completion of homework and poor school attendance, leading to either poor learning outcomes or school dropout.
Similarly, lockdowns come with a heightened risk of children witnessing or suffering violence and abuse, which is prevalent in their homes. Children are cushioned from such violence and abuse when they are at school for many hours for the primary school pupils and three months for secondary school pupils.
Play and peer interaction is very critical for children’s holistic development. Play is the most natural way in which children learn. Children acquire knowledge and practise what they already know through play. During play they use their senses: Play in remote learning which is taking place among children is not practical as they can only use some senses and not others. This makes it incomplete. Besides they cannot practise what they are learning with their peers because of the confinement. This could undermine holistic learning in children.
The children may get stigma associated with the infectious disease and are likely to have mental health and wellbeing issues especially those children facing extreme deprivations in all aspects. Acute stress can impair their cognitive development and trigger longer-term mental health challenges which may affect their learning if not resolved before schools re-open.
The measures adopted by the government have negative impacts on the special need cases and at-risk children. Some of the learners with special needs could face violence at home. These categories of children are especially hard to serve through distance learning programmes as they may have less help at home and also have no learning resources at home. Learners with special needs may drop out of school due to prolonged stay at home.
The ministry of education must ensure that both the schools, parents and the learners are prepared for a new way of doing things. As the learners re-open schools they will require to be supported by different categories of stakeholders to settle back in the following ways.
The school administration should:
Monitor the psychosocial well-being of the teachers who may be anxious and stressed,
Offer training to the teachers on how to handle the students and pupils
Provide psychosocial support to all the teaching and the non-teaching staff
Increase the teachers’ digital skills in case the pandemic persists and recurs after opening
Provide meals for children’s cognitive development since some has been missing proper diet
Train prefects and monitors on handling Covid-19 related issues
Ensure and continue the provision of essential school health and nutrition package school feeding, micronutrient supplementation, deworming, malaria prevention and oral hygiene at the lower primary levels
Ensure adequate nutrition content of meals which the children from the deprived homes have been lacking.
Be able to come up with pedagogical strategies aimed at ensuring that the pupils/students in the examination classes are adequately prepared for the examinations. This can as well apply to those who have special needs and slow learners.
Offer remedial programmes for the children who missed out on digital learning to be able to catch up with their peers
Offer large scale assessments to the students and pupils to identify the learning gaps that the children have which are associated with what has been happening at home and thus taking the necessary steps to bring them at par and monitoring and addressing psychosocial wellbeing of the pupils and students in their classes and taking the necessary action.
Parents ought to:
Continue offering psychosocial support to the children
Maintain communication with the teachers
Share their personal home experiences with the children during the containment for the teachers to understand their children better
Monitor the students and pupils academic progress and give feedback to the school
Appreciate any positive outcomes they see in their children
Listen to their children’s needs and desires and support where necessary.
The Ministry of Education and other school stakeholders can borrow a leaf from Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea experience who had their schools closed for six to nine months during the Ebola pandemic.
In Guinea, the government waived the exam fees for the candidates while in Liberia remedial classes were offered and the teachers had to go through a refresher course to enable them to handle the children who had psychosocial problems already and needed special attention individually.
Post recovery support was also offered to both the teachers and learners and the curriculum had to be re-designed to accommodate Ebola-related content to benefit the teachers and learners.
The writer is an educationist and researcher with ACAL Consulting