The feelers sent by Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha that schools may not reopen in January 2021 after all has unfurled the reality of an all-enveloping crisis in our education system.
Caught in the whirlwind are policy makers determined to postpone a problem, a cautious government keen to avoid blame, confused parents blackmailed by the pressures of the times to clutch onto every suggestion and helpless learners missing the opportunity of incorporating the new normal in their learning.
In the last few days, the Government’s decisions to close schools indefinitely and to cancel the 2020 academic year have attracted mocking international headlines, with New York Times calling the cancellation of the year “Kenya’s unusual solution to the school problem”.
And The Economist screamed that Kenya’s government “has scrapped the whole year, leaving its children idle until January.” But here at home, undeterred parents and policy makers are trudging along, clutching on to the hope that a vaccine will soon be found.
In the meantime, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, in calling for prioritisation of reopening of schools, has warned of “a generational catastrophe that could waste untold human potential, undermine decades of progress, and exacerbate entrenched inequalities.”
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Covid 19 Time Series
“Kenya is the only country in the whole world whose children won’t be allowed to transition. This puts them at a disadvantage considering that they are competing on the same global stage,” Kenya Private Schools Alliance (KPSA) Chair Mutheu Kasanga says.
The alliance is totally opposed to the repetition order, arguing it will greatly disrupt learning for an age-based curriculum where pupils join Grade One when they turn six and not because they can read and write. They believe the online learning has has not been adequately explored by the Government despite its potential.
“Resources are available to keep students learning even while at home. Public schools claim they can’t go online but they have devices,” Kasanga told a recent webinar titled ‘Maximising the impact of ICT and personalised learning’, organised and hosted by Mwalimu Plus: a digital learning company behind Mwalimu Plus e-tutor app.
A few years ago, the Jubilee government honoured its promise of supplying basic learners with millions of digital learning devices, many of which are now locked in unguarded stores. The Government also invested heavily in rural electrification programme targeting schools.
Towards digital learning
According to former ICT Permanent Secretary Bitange Ndemo, the world was already moving towards digital learning and the Covid-19 pandemic just hastened the process. The Government, therefore, ought to have embraced the times.
“We are currently in a transition from the third to fourth industrial revolution. Learning is becoming personalised. Artificial Intelligence is making it possible for a learner to progress at their own pace,” Prof Ndemo told the webinar meet.
George Njau, the Principal of Kongoni Primary School in Nairobi’s South-C, says digital tools are already showing great promise in the education of students. Kongoni is probably one among few public schools that have embraced the use of digital tools to keep students engaged since lockdown began.
The school’s students who were meant to sit KCPE exam this year are continuing with learning via Zoom and the Mwalimu Plus e-tutor app.
“We allowed our candidates to sign for digital tablets – some given to us by the Government and others donated by Mwalimu Plus – to allow them to continue learning via digital interfaces,” says Njau.
He says while the idea to run the rest of the syllabus via online learning is noble, not all students will be able to access learning.
“If we can reach at least 95 per cent of students through online then it would make sense students progressing to higher classes,” he says.
But mass repetition is not the only problem facing the education sector in the face of the novel coronavirus. Emerging fiscal needs, scientific evidence and medical projections all point to a difficult reopening period, putting to doubt the resolve of decision makers and damping learners’ hopes of reuniting in learning centres.
And then there is the nagging inequality problem Guterres was warning about. According to the New York Times analysis, once schools reopen, there will be two sets of learners who will not be on the same level or able to compete equally in national exams.
This is because in the midst of the confusion, the able parents have committed their young ones into privately sponsored digital learning while the destitute are idling at home for want of choice. The most able parents are moving their children to British, French or other private foreign schools in Kenya, leaving behind their colleagues.
These two sets of students may never catch up ever again in life, when Covid-19 is long buried and demands of the world economy come calling.
“We are at a defining moment for the world’s children and young people. The decisions that governments and partners take now will have lasting impact on hundreds of millions of young people, and on the development prospects of countries for decades to come,” Guterres warned earlier this week.
He also alerted governments of the window of opportunity that emerged to “re-imagine education” while at the same time balancing the health risks that Covid-19 has brought forth.
“We can take a leap towards forward-looking systems that deliver quality education for all as a springboard for the sustainable development goals. To achieve this, we need investment in digital literacy and infrastructure, an evolution towards learning how to learn, a rejuvenation of life-long learning and strengthened links between formal and non-formal education,” Guterres said.
According to The Economist analysis titled ‘The risks of keeping schools closed far outweigh the benefits’, the costs of missing school are huge. Children learn less and lose the habit of learning. And Zoom is a lousy substitute for classrooms.
“Education is the surest path out of poverty. Depriving children of it will doom them to poorer, shorter, less fulfilling lives. The World Bank estimates that five months of school closures would cut lifetime earnings for the children who are affected by $10trn in today’s money, equivalent to 7% of current annual GDP,” the article said.
With such catastrophic potential losses, The Economist advised that governments should be working out how to reopen schools as soon as it is safe. The situation, the magazine said, is dire in poorer countries where closures make children more vulnerable to hunger and diseases.
“The prudent course for poor-country governments is therefore to act boldly,” it says.
But this re-opening will require a lot of resources than the Government can afford at this time. Billions of shillings are required to build infrastructure that adheres to the Ministry of Health Covid-19 protocols before the resumption of learning.
The money is also required to train lecturers and students in new technology that supports e-learning and pay the dons for the extra work, which inevitably they will be involved in, given that the classes will hold fewer students as than they currently do.
The situation is as complicated in campuses and colleges as is in primary and secondary schools. An earlier plan to reopen universities through a phased approach was dropped a few weeks ago.
Universities Academic Staff Union (Uasu) is adamant that if the Government does not give money to the cash-strapped universities, then they will not re-open in January.
“These can’t be done by VCs. I met Magoha last week on Thursday and told him that this is only possible with government funding because universities are struggling. Otherwise there is no guarantee the universities will reopen in January,” said Uasu Secretary General Constantine Wasonga.
He said the money is required for infrastructure and remuneration.
“When lecturers teach fewer students, there is need for more lecturers and this calls for money. When a lecturer develops online content, they should be paid. Lecturers and students need laptops and bundles for effective e-learning system,” Wasonga said.
Uasu Vice Chairman Mutuura Mberia said the Government should adopt the British system of higher education where students do not live on campus.
“In Britain, private developers have come up with a housing model that accommodates four students and has a common kitchen where every student has a cooker. They learn in universities and leave for the hostels,” Prof Mberia said.
He said this will allow for the Government and university managers to convert current hostels into lecture halls instead of using large amounts of cash to build new lecture halls and hostels.
“This will enable social distancing as universities use extra cash to appeal to the telecommunication companies to put 4G network across the country to facilitate online tuition in urban and rural areas like Turkana,” Mberia said.
He said e-learning has compromised the quality of education and should be done away with until there is proper infrastructure for it.
Prof Elijah Omwenga, the Deputy Vice Chancellor in charge of academics and students affairs at University of Kabianga, said the challenge will be implementing social distancing and practical exams.
[Additional reporting by Gardy Chacha]