Our reaction to Covid-19 should be based on data, not emotions. And more so when making decisions on reopening schools. Schools are not about the buildings, but the next generation.
The debate on school opening is being framed as life versus exams, but it is broader than that. The call for public involvement in the issue shows how weighty it is, though public consultation is enshrined in the constitution.
What are my thoughts as a former high school teacher who taught the subjects students love to hate - mathematics and physics?
First, let’s deal with uncertainties created for the next generation. When will they go back to school? When will they finish school? Will there be jobs for them?
One would wish that leaders spent more time reassuring the next generation that despite Covid-19, better times will come. I am told schools did not close during the Mau Mau emergency.
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Covid 19 Time Series
Developed countries seem to have accepted that Covid-19 will be there for a long time. They want things back to normal soonest possible, some for political reasons.
US President Donald Trump faces an election this year, a plebiscite on his handling of the Covid-19 crisis. Their systems are more Covid-compliant with deeper pockets. But let’s dwell on education and leave other sectors for another day.
One study put the optimal school size as between 600 and 900 students. If the numbers exceed this limit, they build new schools. Mega schools are rare. In Japan, for example, the average class size is 20 students.
Unfortunately, Covid-19 came when 100 per cent transition was Kenya’s objective. We had long suggested, without the hindsight of a prophet and long before Covid-19, that we build new schools instead of crowding the existing ones or promoting some to national status.
No one is saying it loudly, but the 100 per cent transition to high school is the ultimate nightmare in reopening schools. Primary schools are easy to handle, the only worry is classrooms and social distancing for children.
In rural areas, we can put up temporary tents or use cheap materials such as timber or mabati as the government hires more teachers. Don’t we use tents for other functions and occasions? We have no worry over cold winters in Kenya. Getting extra space in urban areas is a big problem.
One can argue that children will play and pass the virus to each other, then take it home. We must accept that inevitably, herd immunity, cure or vaccine must come into play some day.
We cannot open the primary schools and leave secondary institutions closed. That is why schools should open in January 2021. Then in the next six months, the government should make the learning institutions pandemic-compliant. I hear some schools have triple deckers and class sizes of 60 and above are common.
In the six months to January 2021, we shall learn from those countries that have opened schools and who knows, there could be a cure or vaccine.
The elephant in the room is who will pay the cost of making schools Covid-19 compliant; building more classes or more dormitories. Parents might not be ready - some have lost jobs. But if they had the cash, they could sacrifice and pay fees for two terms, which would be used to build new facilities. Government would supplement their efforts.
We could even float a school bond and the money raised used to revamp our institutions or build new ones. We have not built new ones since Moi-era ‘Harambee’ schools.
By January 2021 all schools, both boarding and day, would go through a makeover. With more classes to keep social distance, government would hire more teachers. If we get a cure or vaccine, we shall still have upgraded our schools.
We should ensure that all schools are connected to the net and power. We may never have another break like this to relook at them.
For the universities, online classes are the way to go. Even the famous Cambridge and Harvard are online. Courses that need practicals can go on; they usually have a smaller number of students. Laboratory kits can be given to students to carry out experiments at home, with safety measures in place.
In the six months, we shall also have developed online examination procedures. Do we not do GMAT, TOEFL and other exams online? That is why universal internet access should be the norm just like access to water or roads. Internet should become a public good.
If we do not make internet accessible to all, education will exacerbate class fissures as the affluent sprint ahead. With universal internet, the rich and poor will have access to the same information. How they use it is another question.
In the long run, we may have to ask if boarding schools are that necessary. The fact that schools were closed after the pandemic shows that our homes are the key defence in any crisis.
Suppose we focused more on the students’ homes? Do they have good accommodation, working space, hygiene and technology?
Covid-19 is the best chance to transform our education. Universities cannot pay their wages? The silver lining is that they have the golden chance to become truly global, admitting students from all over the world and make more money. Check the number of students enrolled in Harvard’s short courses.
The shift to online classes, though over-romanticised, will demand more focus on content development. Teaching students who put off their videos and you have never met face-to-face is not as fun as believed. It is demanding our creativity and ingenuity.
As online classes become widespread, the academia will soon be like the media, with its stars.
Suggestions being peddled that pupils and teachers should stick to their counties to stop spreading of Covid-19 are too emotional. We should not assist Covid-19 to make us insular.
The Covid-19 crisis should help us focus on how to improve the learning environment for the next generation.
The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi