The anxiety that parents have been feeling while awaiting the Education and Health ministries to chart a way forward on the reopening of schools under the Covid-19 conditions has been relieved a little bit. Other stakeholders who claim to be party to the decision to postpone schooling until 2021 include religious organisations, association of private schools, the Kenya Union of Post Primary Education Teachers (KUPPET), the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) and parents.
The decision may have taken a cue from countries such as France and South Korea, where schools were reopened, only for them to be shut down almost immediately, when the Covid-19 cases spiked.
Children present special challenges when it comes to contagious disease and the conditions in many Kenyan schools exacerbate the situation tenfold, making them not only a more vulnerable group but a one that will have to be given special attention whenever schools will reopen, no matter how far ahead Kenya can push that.
I sit on the board of a community school near my village, sponsored by the Catholic Archdiocese of Nairobi. The school, St. Vincent Secondary school, Rioki, is one of the schools attended by ordinary Kenyan children. The parents are law-abiding citizens who vote and contribute to the economy through dairy and coffee farming, small business enterprises and the jua kali work, etc. It is a Wanjiku school, so to speak.
The school compound is neat and well organised, with a responsible management, an interested sponsor and cooperative parents who are doing their best to make positive contribution to their children’s education. One of the things that the parents have not been able to do, however, is provide running water, as they too engage in the back-breaking work of fetching the same from natural springs or rivers for their domestic consumption.
A water tank donated by the Githunguru Constituency Development Fund harvests water from the roof of a dining room built by the parents. They are also engaged in a project where they are building a laboratory to enhance the science experience of their children. The project has been running for a number of years now. The parents have build classes over the years, through their own sweat. They cannot possibly make any more effort to support the education system.
The number of children per class is 50, or more, without hope in site for new classes any time soon, so social distancing remains a myth. It is a day school, so teaching children in shifts into the evening would present unnecessary security risks as they walk back home in the dark.
The young people in this school are an excellent sample of the real treasures of this nation. They are vibrant, knowledgeable and up to date with technology. They aspire for great things even with no role models to fashion. Each year a small number of them, mostly girls, make it to university. Another handful qualify for technical and vocational training.
I have no doubt that St. Vincent’s is a mirror reflection of about 90 per cent of rural public schools in Kenya. Never mind their location and the mythical narrative that is told about marginalisation and proximity to the capital. The Member of Parliament for Githunguri, Gabriel Kago has promised to drill a borehole, through efforts of the parliamentary committee on agriculture and livestock. When this happens it will solve the water issues for the school, the adjacent Rioki Primary School and, hopefully, the community. The provision of water services is a devolved function, whereas water is a national natural resource. But then devolution does not seem to work where it matters the most, as governors spend copiously on multi-million-shilling office blocks, without thinking of such essential services as water.
Kenya has postponed the school year, but the challenges that face Kenyan schools will be waiting when schools reopen. The ministry of education has not unveiled a plan on how space will be created to accommodate the large number of children or where water to wash hands will come from. The directive to accommodate 25 children per class wishes away half of Kenyan children.
There is no information on how this will affect the implementation of the new curriculum, the plight of the teachers hired by the boards of public schools and those of private institutions. The government is mum on how it will relocate the budget set for education in year 2020 so that some of these challenges are surmounted in 2021.
But the biggest challenge of the systems may be how children will be kept safe and occupied in the next six months as many are exposed to hunger, drugs, premature sexual engagement, idleness and lack of critical parent guidance.