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Face masks headache for parents as schools reopen

By Augustine Oduor | January 2nd 2021

A Class Eight pupil during a lesson at Kaptembwa Primary School in Nakuru. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

The race is on to procure masks for over 10 million school-going children. In the next two days, every primary and secondary student must have at least two masks as part of measures to ward off Covid-19, which led to the closure of learning institutions 10 months ago. 

It gets complicated for boarders who are supposed to have enough masks to last for 11 weeks because there won’t be a mid-term break and visits by guardians are prohibited.

But as parents scramble to equip their children, questions have emerged over whether to buy reusable cloth masks or stick to the conventional single-use masks.

Owing to increased demand, there are fears that prices will rise. And there is still the question of what happened to the billions of shillings the Government had set aside to buy masks to be distributed to learners.

Parents are reporting that they are having a hard time finding masks that fit and are of the right quality. Wearing ill-fitting and poorly made masks could end up compromising the safety of learners.

School managers are also concerned about what steps to take in case learners show up without masks.

Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha, however, is yet to advise parents on the right quality and size of masks that have been approved by Cabinet.

During his tour of Kitui County Textile Centre and Rivatex East Africa in Eldoret last June, Prof Magoha said the ministry had held discussions with five different face mask manufacturers, including the National Youth Service, about a prototype for the masks.

Correct masks

“Masks are a must; there is no negotiation about that. That’s why I am having sleepless nights as we think of how to acquire them,” he said.

Parents who spoke with The Standard yesterday faulted the Ministry of Education for not advising on where to buy the correct masks.

“All they have said is that we must buy masks because it is now part of the school uniform. But we are worried that some parents may buy the right quality while some may not, and this will compromise the safety of our children,” said a parent in Nairobi.

Kenya Primary Schools Head Teachers Association chairman Nicholas Gathemia said, “As we speak, we do not know whether they should buy them on the streets, in shops or chemists.

He added: “We would rather have children come with the right mask even if they do not have other uniform.”

To meet demand, enterprising tailors and uniform dealers have started churning out “designer” face masks made of cloths that match the colour of the school uniforms. Each piece is selling for between Sh50 and Sh100.

It is also clear that face masks will play a key role in preventing community spread of infections by sick or asymptomatic persons after most schools failed to construct additional classrooms to enable social distancing.

The Education ministry’s proposal to have between 15 and 20 learners in every class will not work in such crowded institutions.

“The elephant in the room is the implementation of social distancing. Our schools are already filled to capacity to the extent that we have just completed 100 per cent transition just before Covid,” said Magoha.

He added: “You know and I know and everybody knows in this country that this is going to be a challenge. The more reason we must make sure that masks are made of the right material and they are of good size.”

The Government's plan to supply masks was also captured in the National Treasury and Planning Post-Covid-19 Economic Recovery Strategy (2020-2022).

According to the document, the Government plans to spend Sh500 million to supply masks, soaps and sanitisers to primary schools, while another Sh600 million will be used in the next financial year for a similar exercise.

The Government had also planned to use Sh1 billion to supply masks to secondary schools over two years. An initial Sh800 million was to be spent in the last financial year with the balance used this fiscal year.

But this plan was shelved and parents asked to shoulder the costs. “In order to buy reusable masks for your child, you only need Sh70 and maximum of Sh100,” Magoha said this week in Murang’a.

Education stakeholders, however, say the Government must intervene to keep prices down as demand skyrockets.

“Do they have a proper mechanism to ensure parents are not exploited at this time when they must buy masks to send children to schools?” asked Usawa Agenda Executive Director Emmanuel Manyasa.

National Parents Association chairman Nicholas Maiyo yesterday said that due to the lack of a proper prototype, they have negotiated with some of the manufacturers to deliver masks closer to schools.

Affordable cost

“We have signed an agreement with Rivatex to deliver masks in their regional shops in Eldoret, Kisumu, Nairobi and Nakuru. We shall make further arrangements for delivery in schools,” said Mr Maiyo.

The chairman said plans are underway to sign another agreement with book suppliers to deliver masks as they distribute books to schools.

“The idea is to bring the right masks to schools for parents to buy at an affordable cost of about Sh50 per piece.”

The initiative, however, may exclude other parts of the country such as Central, North Eastern and the Coast where Rivatex does not have distribution shops.

Maiyo also advised parents to buy at least 20 surgical masks to cover the period before deliveries can begin.

In some schools, parents have been asked to buy additional masks for their children.

“Dear parent, we encourage students to carry enough face masks; at least 70 disposable or five reusable masks. We encourage students to have at least one small bottle of pocket sanitiser for personal use to last the whole term as no visiting is allowed,” read part of a message from St Marys Secondary in Nyeri.

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