Our children have been home for six months now. There are approximately 15 million primary school and secondary school learners. Majority cannot learn online. As revealed in the 2019 Census, only 9 percent of Kenyan households have access to a computer and only 18 per cent have access to the Internet.
As such, the much-touted e-learning is only possible for a small fraction of students. For the rest, the six-month lay-off has stunted their education and been disastrous in multiple other ways.
During the first three months of the Covid-19 pandemic, 152,000 teenage girls became pregnant. This has changed the trajectory of their lives and learning forever. Thousands of students, both boys and girls, have been recruited into child labour.
The International Labour Organisation reports that Covid-19 could push the number of people living in extreme poverty by as much as 60 million this year alone. For every 1 percentage point rise in poverty, there is a 0.7 percentage point increase in child labour.
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Among those pushed deeper into poverty are thousands of Kenyan households. Children in those households are already helping to make ends meet for their families. Because they are not in class, they spend their days engaging in child labour for long hours.
In addition to the deepening child labour, the extended school closure has deprived many Kenyan children of their basic right to food.
Some 1.5 million pupils who are part of the school feeding programme can no longer access regular lunches. Against this backdrop, the reopening of schools is critical for reasons that extend beyond the actual formal learning.
The question must now shift from when to reopen schools to how they should be reopened. Because corona prevalence and learning conditions across Kenya are radically different, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. The corona hotspots like Nairobi and Mombasa will need stricter control measures. On the other hand, schools from poorer and marginalised parts of Kenya will also need specialised support systems, even if they are not corona hotspots.
The most important parameter is the health and lives of our students. When they go back to school, classrooms should dispense to them knowledge, not corona virus.
It is critical for the government to undertake a comprehensive risk analysis and engage the country in a dialogue on the same. Schools are such an integral part of society that their reopening cannot be left entirely to a few government officials and the usual education stakeholders whom we hold in high regard.
The UN warned on August 20, 2020 that the extended school closure is hurting children in significant ways. Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, said: “We must not be blind-sided by our efforts to contain COVID-19 and end up with a lost generation.
Just as countries are opening businesses safely, we can reopen schools. This decision must be guided by a thorough risk analysis to ensure the safety of children, teachers and parents and with key measures like physical distancing put in place.”
A WHO survey has revealed that although schools remain closed in fourteen African nations, 12 are scheduled to resume learning in September. That means that Kenya is among only a handful of African countries that have no plans yet, of resuming learning this September. That should not exert undue pressure for us to reopen since the idea is not to go with the flow, but with safety.
We need a comprehensive checklist that must guide safe reopening of schools. UNICEF, World Health Organisation and Red Cross already came up with such a checklist back in March when Covid-19 became a global pandemic.
Among the critical items on this list are: social distancing through spacing of desks; handwashing facilities; sufficient water, sanitation and waste management facilities; daily disinfection and cleaning of school surfaces; Cancelling assemblies, sports games and other events that create crowded conditions; Staggering the beginning and end of the school day.
Most schools in Kenya, especially rural Kenya, will need mammoth government support if they are to tick the items on this checklist.
Schools should be reopened the day that all or at least, the vast majority of schools in Kenya can tick this checklist. As such, safe reopening of schools is dependent on our collective preparedness and not on the corona virus.
We dearly love our 15 million children. As such we must create 15 million reasons to stop blaming the virus for the continued closure of schools. The ball is in our court, let us think and act green!
–The writer is founder and chairperson, Green Africa Foundation. www.isaackalua.co.ke