The suspension of the academic year was timely given the prevailing Covid-19 situation. It’s was not possible to maintain social distance, provide protective gear and enforce physical restrictions, test teachers and pupils once the communal transmission of the virus was reported.
While some are pushing for September reopening, the reality on the ground tells a different story. Kenya is ill-prepared to implement international safety protocols that require each classroom to accommodate a maximum of 15 to 20 pupils, social distancing of a 1.5 meters, clean reliable water supply, daily provisions of PPEs for learners and teachers, psycho-social support, capacity building and information sharing to teachers, learners and parents.
A key concern is the planned scaling down of learners per class which school administrators say will be a tall order due to inadequate infrastructure and an acute shortage of teachers. This would require construction of more classrooms and employment of another 400,000 teachers.
Another key concern is the provision of PPEs for learners and teachers beyond the two masks Education CS George Magoha has promised when schools reopen.
Students, teachers and staff working in school will require protective gear throughout the pandemic, suggesting that the 24 million masks Magoha has procured are not enough. Add to this the need for thermos guns and the breadth of the challenge becomes more telling.
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Most schools don’t have reliable supply of water and the proposed alternative of boreholes construction is not feasible. Cleaning and disinfecting school buildings, classrooms and especially water and sanitation facilities at least twice a day, particularly surfaces that are touched more often (railings, lunch tables, sports equipment, door and window handles, toys, teaching and learning aids etc.) will be a challenge.
Implementation of social distancing practices in day and boarding schools, procedures for separating unwell students and staff from others without creating stigma and the process for informing parents and caregivers, or consulting with health care providers and authorities will all be daunting.
Though parents and some education stakeholders want Standard Eight and Form Four candidates to resume school, adequate time is required for preparation of learners prior to examination administration.
The key question is whether the syllabus was covered and the learners are psychological and academically prepared. Learning took place from January to mid-March in most parts of the country except Northern Kenya due to insecurity and mass transfer of non-local teachers. Hence learners are not prepared to sit exams and will require at least six months of active teaching.
Syllabus coverage cannot be shortened because a specific time span is required to cover the content and achieve some standard for transition and testing.
Concerns should be how to avoid crisis and congestion for learners and teachers. The curriculum has to be covered uniformly from pre-school for Form Four. Transiting of Grade 8 and Form Four to the next level means other grades have to transit.
Decisions about whether to maintain, cancel, postponed, or introduce alternative approaches to exams and validation of learning remain urgent. However, considerations for making such decisions should be based, first and foremost, on the safety, health and social emotional well-being of students and educational personnel.
Should on-site exams be maintained, appropriate sanitary measures need to be ensured in line with guidance provided by national and international health authorities. While some countries kept end-of-year exams, many postponed them and some adopted other strategies to allow learners to transit to the next grade.
The key question for Kenya is whether there are possibilities to allow transition to avoid clogging the system or double intake at some point in the education cycle. Some countries - Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Palestine, German, Eritrea and Syria - where high-stake examinations are administered between March and May did the tests under strict hygiene conditions.
Due to the low possibilities of majority of countries in the world to implement these measures, most decided to either cancel or postpone examinations.
Several European and North American countries have postponed the high-stakes exams. More generally, the West African Secondary School Certificate Examinations for Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, The Gambia, and Liberia were suspended indefinitely. Angola, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, the Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Nigeria, Liberia, Seychelles and Togo also postponed the exams.
In some countries where exams were cancelled, teachers used continuous assessments to allow learners proceed to the next level. For instance, Norway decided to cancel most national exams for junior high as well as high school and the schools provided more continuous assessment so that teachers could grade students for transition.
In the UK, school exams including the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSEs) and A Levels that usually take place in May and June were cancelled. In Slovakia, the written part of the school-leaving examination will not take place this school year.
The US federal government announced that states will be allowed to cancel federally mandated standardised tests in K-12 schools.
In Sweden, the National Agency for Education cancelled national tests, Spain cancelled diagnostic tests for primary and secondary students (3rd and 6th years in primary and 4th in secondary) and in the Netherlands transition was based on previous performance in school tests.
However in Kenya, continuous assessments tests (CATs) are not standardised and Kenya National Examination Council has not developed tools for that process. In addition, national exams in Kenya account for 100 per cent of students’ evaluation unlike other countries where they cater for less than 50 per cent.
Furthermore, our national exams are a key part of a quality assurance mechanism and provides important feedback on the nature and quality of the curriculum, quality of teaching and learning. It is also an important tool for evaluating students’ learning outcome and is used for certification, placement in different secondary school categories, college and university courses and programmes. This means some form of evaluation of students learning has to be conducted for learners to transit to next levels. Many countries are scheduling exams depending on the evolution of the Covid-19 pandemic, the academic calendar and the resources needed to reorganise the exams.
Kenya is no exception. The World Health Organisation says the key concern in reopening school is to address the role children play in community transmission. Children may not be adversely affected by the virus but may be agents of transmission from the communities to schools and to their homes due to the high level of interaction between them. There is need for the government to come up with a comprehensive long term strategy that focuses on limiting the spread of the virus.
Reopening schools soon will mean engaging in an experiment that will put at risk the lives of more than 15 million learners, 350,000 teachers and education personnel. The alarming increase of positive cases and deaths suggests that it’s not time to go back to class. If we suppress the virus in our communities, then schools can open safely.
We should therefore stop campaigns of developing options to January 2021 reopening.
The writer is Secretary General, Kenya National Union Of Teachers & Nominated MP