On July 7, Kenya joined the growing list of countries that have suspended the learning calendar due to Covid-19 pandemic. According to UNESCO, more than 91 per cent of the world’s student population has been affected by the closure of schools.
This comes as no surprise, given that majority of Kenyan schools are often overcrowded, understaffed, and have poor hygiene and sanitation facilities.
As a result, at least 17 million pupils and students have had their learning disrupted. The government, through the Ministry of Education, should work towards building the infrastructure needed to ensure schools meet the required water, sanitation and hygiene standards in order to adhere to the Covid-19 pandemic safety guidelines before January 2021, when schools are set to reopen.
Additionally, even as we ensure that our children remain safe from the virus, there are further needs to be taken into account to ensure learners have the ideal learning environment during and after the pandemic, including addressing the technological gap, mental health, and space for girls.
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With children out of school for another six months, the pandemic threatens to reverse years of educational progress in Kenya as a result of existing technological gaps fueled by social inequalities. While we recognise the government’s efforts to ensure learning continues through the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD), many are still unable to keep up with the rest. KICD estimates that at least 47 per cent of learners are accessing lessons through radio, television or the internet. For families that own the requisite technology, these are not easily accessible to learners, given that within children are at different levels of their education. This poses the challenge of sharing devices among school-going children.
Furthermore, children living in remote, rural, and low-income settings largely lack access to electricity and internet connectivity. The lack of content differentiation by grade level in delivery may also leave learners with inadequate content. These challenges are bound to cause achievement gaps in how learners progress with studies during and after schools closure.
The pandemic presents an opportunity to redesign the use and accessibility of technology to deliver better outcomes for learners, including those who are living with disabilities. Learners and teachers need to be well equipped with digital skills that will help us navigate the future of education.
A recent report released by the mental health task-force in Kenya estimated that one in every 10 people suffers from mental health illness. The problem has mainly been attributed to increase in jobs losses and pay cuts that have led to constraints in provision of basic needs, resulting in emotional instability.
The increase in sexual and gender-based-violence countrywide, coupled with the pandemic’s control measures that include a curfew has left victims with nowhere to seek refuge at night. According to the World Health Organisation, mental health illnesses affect 10 per cent to 20 per cent of children and adolescents globally.
For some learners, especially the 1.2 million candidates who were set to sit their final year examinations, the cancellation of the tests is unsettling. During the pandemic, students are worried about forgetting what they had learned and losing their abilities to concentrate on studying, lack of access to learning materials to continue with their studies during school closure, lack of extra-curricular activities to participate in and limited social interactions.
This, in turn, causes feelings of sadness, loneliness, and depression that could have long-term effects if not promptly dealt with. Youth-friendly centers should be accessible within the community for children in need of psycho-social support while at home.
The schools closure places girls at a greater risk. When girls are out of school, it increases their exposure to sexual and physical violence, child marriage, and defilement. Schools provide a safe environment to vulnerable girls, where they are able to focus on their education, are safe from harmful traditions that are practiced within their communities, have access to school feeding programmes, and menstrual health products provided by the government.
The effects of the last three months of the pandemic are for all to see, with reports indicating that more than 150,000 school-going girls have been impregnated. While some arms of the government, through various ministries, have dismissed the numbers, the fact remains that there has been an increase in teenage pregnancies since the closure of learning institutions.
The numbers are likely to increase, with the opening of schools pushed back to January 2021. Stigma and discriminatory school rules are likely to prevent these girls from continuing with their education. To ensure that this pandemic does not turn into a girl crisis, the government should enact the back to school policy to ensure that all these girls resume school next year.
Moving forward, it is important for the Kenyan government to partner with civil society organisations to comprehensively address issues that have been heightened by the pandemic.
-The writer is Programme Associate at Akili Dada