June 10, 2020 - 5 minutes read

BACK TO SCHOOL? NOT SO FAST!

By Mutindi Muema

Global Situation

With more than 63 million primary and secondary teachers around the world affected by school closures in 165 countries due to the Covid-19 pandemic, education has stalled.  Majority of the affected teachers have been at the frontline of efforts to ensure that learning continues remotely for the nearly 1.5 billion students. The International Teachers Task Force has issued a Call for Action on Teachers to ensure that teachers are protected, supported and recognized during the crisis. The teaching fraternity in Kenya also wants to be heard.

Kenya’s Current Situation

On 1st of June 2020, the President addressed the nation during the first ever ‘remote’ Madaraka day celebrations. In His address, he directed the Ministry of Education to fast track and finalize the ongoing consultations about school reopening with various stakeholders.

The Ministry is expected to provide an appropriate calendar for gradual resumption of education in the country. In his speech, the President directed the Ministry to include protocols to be followed by all learning institutions to guarantee the safety of children and teachers.

How Did We Get Here?

Following WHO’s decision on 11 March 2020 to characterize COVID-19 as a pandemic, President Uhuru Kenyatta issued Executive Order Number 2 of 2020. The order established the National Emergency Response Committee on Coronavirus pandemic as a framework to upscale and coordinate Kenya‘s level of preparedness and capacity to prevent, respond to and contain COVID – 19 pandemic. 

Global Influences

The Kenya Government rolled out several containment measures as recommended by UNICEF, UNESCO, WHO and World Bank which also included closing down of educational institutions – ECDE centers, schools, colleges and universities on March 15th, 2020, completely halting academic and extra-curriculum programmes.

While UN member States started working to ensure the continuity of learning through alternative delivery modalities, they also started preparing for the eventual reopening of schools, colleges and universities.

Ministries of Education in consultation with the Ministries of Health, Security, Social Affairs and other key Public and Private institutions started planning for reopening of schools. All planning is geared at prioritizing the safety and protection of learners, teachers and other personnel, as well as their health – physical, mental and psychosocial, well-being and social relationships.

On April 24th, 2020 when UNESCO organised its Sixth COVID-19 Education Response Webinar around effective strategies to anticipate and prepare for this critical transition, sharing lessons also from past crises.

The health, safety and overall well-being of students and the entire education community was the central concern expressed by all speakers, and the overarching message of the Webinar, attended by over 500 participants. The session enabled information sharing around key questions such as the timing, conditions and processes for schools, colleges and universities reopening.

Key Stakeholders Come Together

On the basis of the recommendations of the Sixth COVID-19 Education Response Webinar key stakeholders including:

·       Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT),

·       Universities Academic Staff Union (UASU) and

·       Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) in collaboration with the

·       Kenya Medical Practitioners Pharmacists & Doctors Union (KMPDU),

·       Forum for African Women Educationalists – Kenya (FAWE – Kenya) and

·       Elimu Tuitakayo Network enriched by significant inputs from Parents of Children with Disabilities

compiled incisive and adaptable recommendations to assist the Kenya Government to formulate appropriate measures that would lead to reopening of ECDE centers, schools, colleges and universities with the basic aim of restoring and normalizing teaching, learning and training.

The stakeholders compiled a report published on 27th May 2020. The report focuses on:

·       Back to School-College-University Strategies,

·       extensively discusses issues touching on assessing and ensuring the readiness of the Education system for schools, colleges and universities reopening;

·       the continuity of learning and training; and

·       system resilience to anticipate and deal with future crises.

Challenges Government Must Address

The Government will need to anticipate and prepare for additional challenges resulting from the direct and indirect consequences of COVID-19 and prolonged social isolation, on both the Education system and on the school community. These include:

·       increased risk of dropout,

·       the exacerbation of existing and new inequalities, or

·       the loss of education personnel.

As per stakeholders, the key considerations for re-opening of learning institutions include: 

·       timing -the most crucial question,

·       a focus on health of learners, teachers and non-teaching staff, and

·       a focus on how learning loss will continue to aggravate locals, especially the poor and most vulnerable.

What’s the Big Deal? Government Obligations & the Right to Education

Irrespective of the prevailing situation and circumstances in the country, the Government is obligated to comply with Article 53 of the Constitution of Kenya (2010) to afford every child free and compulsory quality Basic Education. Indeed, Article 43 of the same constitution unequivocally provides that every person has the right to Education.

Furtherance to this, Article 55 of the Constitution observes that ―The State shall take all measures, including Affirmative Action programmes to ensure that the youth access Relevant Education and Training.

Pursuant to this Government has undertaken an online learning program, accessible online, via phone, tablet, laptop and also TV and radio. The question at this point however, is if Government’s e-learning programs are sufficient:

·       for continued education of all students during this COVID pandemic period

·       to enable national examinations to continue as usual.

All key stakeholders do not think current e-learning is sufficient for either scenario.

STAKEHOLDERS’ TAKE

In making recommendations to Government, the stakeholders conducted a study as well as a survey to assess:

1.     The possibility of recalling National Examinations Classes (Std 8 and Form 4) back to schools to continue with syllabus coverage and prepare for examinations

Majority of the respondents noted that syllabus coverage should not be done hurriedly to enable the candidates do the National examinations. The national exams should only be done after the syllabus has been adequately covered by all candidates in all regions taking into consideration the time/duration that has been lost.

On when the examinations KCPE & KCSE should be administered:

·       10% of the respondents indicated that administration of National examinations should continue as planned while

·       20% indicated that exams should be done towards the end of the year that is late November to early December 2020, however,

·       70% of the respondents indicated a need to postpone examinations to January to April 2021.

The stakeholders note that national examinations can only be conducted when all learners have adequately completed the syllabus. As of now the learners have not covered the necessary content and there is inadequate time for preparation therefore national examinations should be postponed.

Stakeholders also noted that national examination should remain postponed until pandemic is fully controlled, schools are reopened in good order and adequate time is given for the syllabus coverage.

Stakeholders are of the view that National Examination should not be a priority over lives of learners and teachers.

2.     The accessibility and effectiveness of the on-going syllabus coverage via remote learning

·       100% of the Teachers, Branch Executive Secretaries and BECs, noted the ongoing online learning programme has little impact on syllabus coverage, since it is not accessible to all learners.

·       The study established that there is no learning going on in most homes in the urban poor, rural and marginalized areas.

·       This concurs with the recent survey that indicated that only about 22% Kenyan learners can access the E-Learning sessions. The respondents further noted that most households do not have smart phones, TV or Radio, while those with a smart phone/ or mobile phone have only one which is shared between several members of the family making it impractical for learners to have access to the phone.

One high school teacher noted though the school is using various forms of online teaching; whatsapp, Zoom, zerraki app, Facebook, audio and video recordings and other online materials. They have still found it impossible to reach all the students. The teacher noted that ―Out of 380 students, we can say only 100- 200 are taught daily. Though we are committed to the cause to try and reach all the students at all cost, however one thing we have discovered is that network connectivity in some areas is not good and some households cannot even afford smart phones.

3.     On accessibility, effectiveness and affordability of remote/E learning, stakeholders found:

·       Accessibility is a key problem hence very ineffective with over 80% of students losing on syllabus coverage. It is fairly accessible in urban rich centers while most urban poor, rural and marginalized areas are totally unreachable due to unavailable internet connectivity and electricity.

·       E-learning is NOT effective to Northern part of Kenya, because not all households have access Television, Radio and smart phones. The Electricity coverage is limited and Network problem exist with most areas having access to 2G network. This was also established in the rural areas in Elgeyo Marakwet where learning is totally unreachable due to unavailable internet connectivity.

·       Stakeholders from Sotik noted remote learning is almost nil in remote areas with only a less than 20% having access to the programmes.

·       80% of the homes for the urban poor, rural and marginalized areas, are not conducive environment for learning. Students’ concentration in the few home were E-learning is accessible tends to be low due to environment interferences.

·       Though the teachers in the programme may cover the syllabus there are possibilities that most learners are not learning due teacher-learners contact which is poor and not available since there is no meeting point between the teachers and the learner which is essential for clarification of learners‘ issues.  Majority also noted learner‘s questions go unanswered since there is no feedback. The teachers noted that they can only assume that learners are learning. Thus the effectiveness of the programme is questionable.

·       The remote learning programme favours urban/town children while the urban poor, rural/informal/slum learners are negatively affected due to lack of electricity/electronic devices in their poor households.

·       Poor learning experiences: The weak /special needs learners lack guidance, supervision, monitoring& remedial /recaps).

·       System as is was noted to be unreliable, biased/subjective.

·       Affordability of the data bundles: the cost of the data bundles is too high for the most households.

Stakeholders View on Government Preparedness

Stakeholders are of the view that the government is not fully prepared to handle the pandemic for the re-opening of the schools in that:

·       The government has not showed any seriousness in the provision of the basic needs to ensure the people remain at home for safety

·       There are currently no alternative measures to ensure learners remain in school if schools or learning institutions shall be opened.

·       There are no health facilities and personnel with proper gears or attire to provide the necessary services and medical attention especially in the marginalized communities or the rural areas.

·       Key stakeholders have not been involved to interrogate proper measures to be put in place for the control of the pandemic.

Key Stakeholder Recommendations

a)    Schools to Remain Closed

Stakeholders recommend that schools remain closed until Government has in place sufficient measures and plans to ensure COVID curve will not spike from re-opening of learning institutions.

b)    Postpone National Exams

Stakeholders recommend that the National examinations should be pushed to the 1st Quarter of 2021.

c)    Flatten the COVID Curve First

Government should ensure that the COVID – 19 curve of infections is flattened first, as per Prof Florentive Koech and George Osanjo advisory, to assure safety of teachers, support personnel and learners before re-opening of schools. Experts do project that the peak of the curve is in August. Viably, schools cannot reopen until September 2020

d)    Government Action be guided by Best interest of the Child

The decision on reopening of schools should be guided by the best interest of the child and overall public health considerations in line with the UNESCO guidelines for school reopening.

Government should conduct an assessment of the associated benefits and risks and informed by cross-sectoral and context-specific evidence, including education, public health and socio-economic factors. No evidence is available at present to confirm that the government is in compliance or moving towards being compliant with this provision.

e)    Develop a Framework for Phased Re-opening of Schools

A decision on reopening schools is a step-wise process that requires skillful, careful and cautious selection to deal with situations prior to re-opening, during the process of re-opening and management of the schools once they are reopened. A framework for managing this process should be set up in earnest.

Prior to re-opening of schools, the government needs to prepare critical policies, procedures and financing plans to improve schooling, with a focus on safe operations, including strengthening remote learning practices.

As part of the re-opening process, the government needs to adopt proactive approaches to reintegrate marginalized and out-of-school children, invest in water, sanitation and hygiene to mitigate risks and focus on remedial education to compensate for lost instructional time. This becomes more so apparent in the North Eastern Kenya where public schools started the year with huge shortage of teachers due to security-related challenges.

f)      Develop Framework to Actively Monitor Health Indicators

With schools re-opened, a mechanism to actively monitor health indicators should be implemented. The government should invest in strengthening appropriate teaching and learning, including knowledge on infection transmission and prevention.

Government should also undertake an objective, inclusive and comprehensive data-driven process of ascertaining how schools, teachers, non-teaching staff, students and communities are coping with closures and the pandemic remains a critical pre-requisite to any determination of schools‘ re-openings.

Rapid response surveys of school and local leaders, teachers, students and parents can help provide this information, and the multi-agency process rolled out by KNUT, UASU and KHRC is an example that can guide the country on schools‘ re-opening.

With the inconclusive evidence around the infection risks related to school attendance as of now, the government needs to assess how learning and wellbeing can best be supported, the mechanisms for psycho-social support for the learners, teachers and other school workers on re-opening, in addition to other safeguards against risk factors related to reopening and running of schools during COVID-19.

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