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Coronavirus exposes grim inequalities in education

By Duncan Omanga | May 16th 2020 at 12:00:00 GMT +0300

A boy (right) teaches his younger siblings at their Mwembe estate home in Kisii County. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

For weeks now, schools and local universities have been grappling with how to proceed with learning in the context of social distancing, curfews and mini lockdowns imposed as a result of the coronavirus.

Some universities have gone ahead to announce resumption of online studies as part of efforts to mitigate against what is termed as unforeseen interruption caused by the virus.

These are unprecedented times. For private and public universities, the dilemma is largely twofold; how to legitimately and effectively offer classes online and at the same time, retain the moral legitimacy to ask for tuition fees so as to run universities.

In America, and much of the West, Covid-19 is not a leveller of class, as argued by UK premier Boris Johnson. Rather, it has exposed the fault lines of social class and inequality.

Deprived sections

Covid 19 Time Series


In the UK for instance, the hardest hit communities are minorities living in the more deprived sections of the country.

In the US, the poorer communities in the Bronx borough of New York, mostly inhabited by blacks and immigrant communities, continue to bear the brunt of the pandemic.

In Kenya, the inequality that is entrenched in the educational system is showing even into how schools and universities are attempting to emerge and survive the Covid-19 crisis.

A few weeks ago, a high-end private school was dragged to court by parents who felt the school was a little too greedy in asking for tuition to be paid, albeit with a modest discount. Curiously, the school even had an arrangement where kindergarten children would get instructions online.

Earlier, the United States International University had sent information to its students of resumption of classes online, indicating and signalling to various online platforms which students could access.

However, as the Covid-19 pandemic persists, it is only exposing the inequality in the education system.

First, the idea of social and physical distancing is in itself a luxury and a statement of class. A lot has been said about how social distancing in crowded and poor communities is a cruel joke. But even in the class and lecturer room setting, the possibility of appropriating and performing social distancing is a marker of privileged status.

Cramped, congested, public schools will most likely have to wait out the virus to resume any meaningful schooling. Kenyan children for whom social distancing is an impossibility at home, will barely afford it in school.

Second, the concept of ‘working’ from home, virtually, is a subtle insult to the underprivileged, and at the same time a factor of privilege. Schools and universities are scrambling to get as much teaching as possible online, but only a few Kenyan students with internet connection and computers at home can afford this luxury.

When schools were shut in March owing to the pandemic, private schools seamlessly continued working online and generally completed their term’s workloads. For those in public schools, time froze. And will only begin to thaw when all the madness dies out.

While some privileged schools can afford to get content for kindergarten kids online, and engage them virtually, many more, including tertiary institutions can only dream about successfully having uninterrupted online classes. With fixed, or regular data connection in homes still an urban (and urbane) phenomenon, the routine of online classes, and ‘working from home’ is a privilege only very few Kenyan students can afford.

For a vast majority of Kenyan children, home is a complex social space that is constituted by domestic labour, family obligations and other distractions that make it nearly impossible to conceive it as a pedagogical space. Working from home, just like taking virtual class from home, is only accessible to a small fraction of Kenyan students.

Despite the prospects of dispersed dissemination that technology inscribes, where an indeterminate mass can be simultaneously reached from a single source, virtual learning does not easily transform into mass learning. Indeed, smaller classes, and the capacity to distinguish and target the individual from the virtual space is what makes online learning successful. Here, pupils who are enrolled in densely populated public schools, where the vast majority of Kenyan kids go, are disadvantaged.

Huge numbers

In public universities, programmes that seem to comprise huge numbers such as education and the general arts, which also have the most economically disadvantaged groups, are least likely to provide efficient virtual learning.

Thus, Covid-19 and the debates about virtual learning are merely exposing the social inequality in accessing education. It may make sense for stakeholders to be focused more on addressing social inequality in the education system than in obsessing about virtual learning, and “working from home”.

[Dr Omanga works for the Social Sciences Research Council]

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