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Ministry needs to take bold steps in reopening schools

By XN Iraki | September 13th 2020 at 12:30:00 GMT +0300

Pupils from Kawangware Primary School during a past World Global Handwashing Day. [File, Standard]

If we open schools in January, they will have closed for nine months.

We are banking on flattening the Covid-19 curve to open the institutions. That will depend on herd immunity, a cure or a vaccine. Will that happen in four months?

Experience from countries that faced Covid-19 earlier suggests it will not happen. But the paradox of how we have reacted to the pandemic shows we could be more resilient than anyone could have predicted - with low death rates.

Without a cure or vaccine, we have to institute protocols in schools, from social distancing and wearing masks to hand washing. The last two are the easiest to adhere to. Parents can buy masks for their children.

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A packet of 100 masks is going for Sh400 from a high of Sh5,000. Reusable masks would be cheaper. Hand washing is about placing water at strategic points in school.

The nightmare, and it seems no one is addressing it, is social distancing. Anyone who has children in boarding schools - from primary to university - knows the overcrowding in classes and dormitories or hostels.

Ideally, we would have expected schools to expand with more classes and boarding facilities. Maybe I am not observant, but I have not seen construction projects in schools, whether in the rural or urban areas.

The expansion is further necessitated by the 100 per cent transition to high school, which coincided with the arrival of Covid-19. Some schools would need more land for expansion. We would need more teachers, too. If we go by about 15 students per class, some schools would have to expand by three to four times.

Build schools

To make matters worse, parents have traditionally financed the building of schools through development funds and harambees, though CDF is taking up some slack. Parents have no money, laid off after Covid-19 or their business closed.

Without parental input into expanding schools, the alternative is the national government in whose docket education falls. Beyond declaring the schools opening day, we need some concrete action. We have only four months.

We had suggested a school bond to raise funds for building more classrooms and other facilities. After all, education is a public good, funded by taxpayers. It would be too expensive for each family to hire its own teachers or build own schools despite the allure of home schooling.

Curiously, we easily raise money for big projects such as SGR or superhighways. Is it not time we raised a similar amount to build new schools? We have just released the 2019 census and we know how many children are in each level of education and the facilities needed. We have a planning department, we can even project the number of children by 2050.

The last wave of building schools was when President Daniel Moi took over the mantle 42 years ago. Evidence that we have not been building schools fast enough is there for all to see, with mushrooming of private schools. They filled the gap in our underinvestment in education.

Even so, the private investment in education at primary school has not been matched at secondary and tertiary level, where education is more expensive with laboratories, other facilities and high-level manpower.

Some suggest that with social distancing and other Covid-19 protocols, the pendulum may shift to private schools, which are less crowded. But majority of our children will always attend public schools. Even in developed countries, public schooling is the norm. In USA only about 10 per cent of students attend private schools. What is the Kenyan proportion?

I fear that by January 2021, we shall find ourselves unprepared for the opening of schools. I fear that school principals and head teachers will take the burden of our omissions. I hope none of them will be hospitalised as pressure is piled on them by parents and government officials.

Teaching is becoming a health risk, with teachers squeezed between old and new order, parents and government administrators. They are blamed for societal failures despite overwhelming evidence that most do their work, even going beyond the call of duty.

Secret weapon

Preparation is our secret weapon. Remember, any case of Covid-19 in schools will send shivers across the nation. Social distancing is hard to maintain among young children. The reopening of schools in the West has led to a rise in infections. Will we be different? Can we take solace in the fact that the doomsday scenario never came?

I thought losing a year would smoothen things out, till I tried to calculate the Total National Loss in losing a year for each child. Assume that as an adult each child will earn a modest Sh20,000 per month. That’s a total of Sh240,000 per year.

Multiply this by 15 million children. If we assume even the jobless will be earning a living as entrepreneurs, that is a loss of Sh3.6 trillion, more than our current annual budget. Add the emotional part of staying at home, marrying late by one year and other losses. If such a staggering loss does not jolt us into action, what will?

This loss makes me think we should recover that year by any means. It is possible. Promote children to the next year and let teachers recover the lost time. They will not mind putting extra effort - after all, the government paid them for several months without “working.”

Exams can be done as soon as schools open in 2021. I suggest at the end of first term and later in the year. The examinations council has enough time. Form One can report in second term. We can even use Covid-19 to make bold changes like shifting exams online like GMAT, SAT or ACT.

Let’s be bold, my countrymen. These are our children; we owe them a debt which is better paid now than later. 

- The writer is associate professor at the University of Nairobi

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