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Easy as ABC? Why re-opening schools is not an open-shut case

By Jael Mboga | August 7th 2020 at 11:14:59 GMT +0300

When the novel Coronavirus pandemic reared its ugly head, learning institutions were the first casualties.

Education CS George Magoha (pictured) ordered that the schools be closed to avert further spread of the virus.

Universities, primary and secondary schools were ordered shut. What's more, some of the public schools were listed as government quarantine centres, a case sharply criticised by teachers unions.

In April the Kenya Union of Post-Primary Education Teachers asked the government to review the use of schools as quarantine and isolation centres for coronavirus patients.

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At least 20 boarding schools per county were earmarked for conversion into makeshift hospitals should the need arise.

The Kenya National Union of Teachers proposed that other alternative places should be considered.

“We plead with the Government to drop the option of using boarding school facilities in treating victims of Covid-19 due to post-corona stigma that will affect the management of schools,” said Secretary-General Wilson Sossion.

Four months later, the tune has changed.

Some 431 learning institutions – mostly in urban areas – are also being used as both quarantine and isolation centres for Covid-19 patients.

CS Magoha on Thursday told MPs the ministry would take drastic measures, including scrapping boarding facilities, to keep children safe.

With education facilities scheduled to reopen in January, parents and teachers alike have been split on whether schools are safe enough to admit children.

“We have agreed for the time being that these centres should be evacuated a month to reopening and fumigated and sanitised 14 days before,” he said.

Ministry of Health guidelines on how to keep the disease at bay include handwashing and good hygiene. But most public schools either lack running water or have no water at all.

For schools in rural areas, students often have to fetch water from a river.

Other guidelines on stopping the spread of the virus include maintaining a 1.5m physical distance and wearing a mask.

Public schools in Kenya, especially secondary schools, have had a constant challenge of admitting more students than the facilities can handle. For instance, one national school in the Rift Valley had to convert its dining hall to a dormitory to hold the influx of students. With so many students, it will be difficult for them to maintain the required physical distancing.

The already stretched facilities will be required to relook classroom arrangements, seeing as today, the classrooms are too full for the teacher to even move around during a lesson. Some classrooms are known to hold up to 60 students at a time.

Questions abound on how schools will accommodate all students and maintain physical distance.

Boarding schools have cubicles that hold six to eight students, sometimes more in other schools.

Parents, especially of lower primary school children, are concerned about how efficient it is to give children two reusable face masks that can be washed.

It is unclear how the administration will ensure these students are kept safe.

Officials estimate around 26 million face masks will be needed for both primary and secondary schools.

“Futuristically, we shall focus mainly on day schools. It will be difficult maintaining social distance in the cubicle of eight learners,” Magoha told the National Assembly's Committee on Education.

Knut's Sossion, who is also a nominated MP, added that children need to attend schools within their locality and return home in the evening.

With the 2020 school calendar declared lost, it is paramount to reopen schools, but the execution mode is still proving to be a headache.

Others have reasoned that teachers moving in and out of schools may increase the risk of infection among the boarders.

Magoha said officers from Teachers Service Commission, Kenya National Examination Council and the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development are working on the guidelines to be issued to teachers.

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