The Covid-19 pandemic triggered a ‘global education emergency’ that threatens to, according to Unicef, derail the education of at least 24 million learners.
At the height of the coronavirus, 192 countries closed schools, leaving 1.6 billion learners worldwide, including over 18 million Kenyans, without in-person learning. This is a threat to attainment of Sustainable Development Goal on access to quality, equitable and inclusive education.
Now, more than 870 million students or half of the world’s student population in 51 countries are yet to return to school. Unicef and Unesco have since established that the longer children remain out of school, the less likely they are to return. This is why the two UN bodies supported by World Bank Group are pressuring governments to prioritise reopening of schools as soon as Covid-19 containment measures are relaxed.
Closing schools for prolonged periods has devastating consequences on children – they become more exposed to physical and emotional violence. Their mental health is affected. They also become more vulnerable to child labour, sexual abuse which could lead them to drop out of school. It should also be noted that beyond education, schools provide many learners with a steady source of nutrition and life skills.
The only way to break out of this vicious cycle is to reopen schools and get children back to the classroom. Hence, the government should put in place measures as directed by President Uhuru Kenyatta to fast-track reopening of schools as it is unfair to continue holding children at home.
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However, for schools to successfully reopen, according to the World Health Organisation Covid-19 protocols, the State Department for Early Learning and Basic Education must move with speed and develop a comprehensive coronavirus response and recovery plan with the aim of providing access to quality, equitable and inclusive education during and after the crisis. The plan should target the marginalised, most vulnerable and poor learners, especially the girl-child. Psycho-social support to learners, teachers, and support staff should be prioritised.
School infrastructure, including classrooms, staff rooms, dining halls, kitchens, workshops, dormitories, and ablution blocks need to be expanded or refurbished to make social distancing possible. Every student should be given their own textbooks to minimise sharing. Constituency Development Fund boards should start in earnest preparing for a steady supply of fresh water, face masks, sanitisers, fumigation equipment and thermo guns.
More importantly, TSC in liaison with line government agencies should build the capacity of teachers in life skills, guidance and counselling to effectively respond to challenges in students’ social behaviour.
In addition, learners, teachers, non-teaching staff and education officials should be sensitised on how to deal with Covid-19 post-traumatic stress. Before schools reopen in January as directed by the President, county governments should link each learning institution with qualified medical personnel to handle any health emergencies.
Unfortunately, despite the financial problems Kenyans are experiencing, parents with children in boarding schools have been called upon to clear outstanding fees. This will complicate life for learners from disadvantaged families, especially those whose parents have either lost jobs or businesses. This could easily lead to such learners to dropping out of school.
So as to effectively address some of these challenges, we must pay a heavy price – we must give boards of management adequate funding so that they can procure the essential, refurbish schools and clear fees balances of children from poor families.
The funds released to learning institutions for infrastructure cannot prepare them adequately for reopening. Currently learning institutions that depend entirely on government funding are operating on zero budget. It is of utmost importance that the ministries of Education and Health, with the full support of the national and county governments, work closely to ensure that schools reopen safely as a matter of priority.
It is not in doubt that the decisions we make today on education will impact our tomorrow. That said, the decision to reopen schools amid the pandemic should be determined by each community’s ability to bring the virus under control through proven public health measures such as mask-wearing, social distancing, testing, tracing, regular hand washing, frequent fumigation, sanitisation, isolation and general cleanliness.
-Mr Sossion is a nominated MP and Secretary-General of Knut