Confusion over schools as varsities and colleges to re-open on Monday

Paul Ochieng, a worker at Moi Primary School in Nakuru County, arranges desks and chairs inside a Standard Eight classroom yesterday. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Confusion gripped the education sector a day after President Uhuru Kenyatta put breaks on schools re-opening, unearthing serious gaps in the several months of Ministry of Education planning.

Yesterday, Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha announced that final year students in universities, teacher training colleges and vocational institutions will resume classes on Monday next week with no hint on the fate of primary and secondary schools.

“The respective universities Councils and the senates, boards of Teacher Training Colleges and Technical and Vocational Training colleges will announce the dates for resumption for students in other classes/academic years,” Magoha said in a statement.

The communication is a huge relief to students who had hoped to graduate as this now opens their path to exit the training institutions. It also gives hope to the rest of the students, as the power to recall them has been rested with university councils and senates and colleges boards.

All councils, boards, and vice-chancellors or principals of colleges will be required to enforce compliance with the health guidelines.

Magoha said all institutions opening doors for face-to-face learning must enforce strict adherence to the health protocols.

“These include monitoring of body temperature for learners and all persons accessing the institutions, observing high-level hygiene and handwashing or use of sanitisers.”

Colleges have also been empowered to develop innovative ways of ensuring social distance and the use of masks or face shields.

The details, however, lie in the president’s rejection of the proposed re-opening plans for primary and secondary schools, presenting a huge indictment on the six months preparations done by Ministry of Education.

The reality of delayed transition by learners in basic and middle learning institutions and the likely lost chance to sit national examinations sank in, further heightening sector anxiety.

Private schools and tertiary colleges, some which had taken loans to ready their institutions for re-opening, were thrown off balance as uncertainty of resumption of learning became blurry.

The sector also faced the dreaded possibility of a lost academic year, as it got increasingly unclear whether the Sh15 billion needed to prepare schools would be released on time.

Teachers in public schools also asked to return home until the capitation money is made available to help them make institutions ready for learners.

This as ministry officials yesterday remained quiet on the finer details of opening plans for basic education learners as the entire sector yearned for direction.

In his speech, Uhuru directed Magoha to issue the calendar for the resumption of learning.

“…whether it will be possible this year or next year,” Uhuru said.

This, however, means that Magoha may have to initiate afresh stakeholders engagement to validate children’s’ safety measures before issuing a calendar.

Well-placed government sources yesterday told The Standard that lack of funds to prepare schools for safe re-opening and unclear road map to protect children’s infection was behind the push to stop opening.

“There are not adequate classes and dormitories constructed for children to use. The desks are not yet ready and most schools do not have clean running water. Even with masks how can you guarantee the safety of children in such conditions,” said a well-placed source.

It emerged that the report presented to Kenyatta by ministry officials on the re-opening measures failed to clarify on these areas and also how possible school infections may be controlled.

With fears of a second wave of Covid-19 infections, the ministry’s re-opening plan did not offer a solid explanation on how student to students infections, staff to students infections or staff to staff infections would be avoided or put under control.

The report was prepared by the Covid-19 Education Response Committee and validated by the national education stakeholders’ conference.

It also emerged that glaring gaps were evident in the availability of adequate spaces to control congestion in classrooms and boarding dormitories.

Whether all public schools had adequate handwashing points and if learners were capable of strictly using facemasks while in schools was also a contentious factor that may have slowed down re-opening plans.

Some of the stakeholders who participated in the preparation of the measures said that the report contained clear phased re-opening measures complete with safety protocols and staggered resumption dates.

“Unless someone doctored the report that we produced, the details were clearly indicated in the document,” said a member of the task force.

The team’s core mandate was to give critical advise to Education CS on the re-opening of all basic learning institutions, teacher training colleges and adult education institutions. Magoha put up the team chaired by Dr Sara Ruto, the chair of Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD), in May.

Kenyatta said the safety and the well-being of children is paramount and cautioned against focus on when schools should open.

“Let us not focus ourselves on when schools will re-open but how shall these schools open in a manner that protects our children and protects their lives and their health,” Kenyatta said.

The announcement caught Covid Education Response Committee members flatfooted as the president rejected their proposals and pushed for learners’ safety.

He further said: “Let us think first about their health and wellbeing and once we have established how then together we will agree when.”

In their report, the Covid Education Response Committee proposed phased re-opening with candidates allowed to report to schools ahead of the rest of learners.

National examinations were proposed to be done by April next year with first term for the 2021 academic year scheduled to start in May and conclude in December. The normal academic calendar would therefore resume in January of 2022.

Guarantee children’s safety

Kenyatta, however, said that the lives and health of children is not a matter of debate.

“Learning institutions should be re-opened only when we can sufficiently guarantee the safety of our children,” Kenyatta said.

Ministry of Education guidelines had proposed lessons be conducted under trees and in open places. The rules also required creating physical distance provisions to avoid any physical contact or air contamination.

Activities that involve physical contact were proposed to be substituted by other activities that allow for safe physical distancing.

School fields were to be appropriately marked to ensure learners play different games that do not involve  touching or holding.

Assemblies, inter-institution competitions including games, drama, music, sports and other events that create crowded conditions were to be suspended for the time being.

Institutions were to hold class mini-assemblies to pray, pass health messages and make announcements as part of ways of enhancing social distancing.

Kenyatta said the resumption of in-person learning must be predicated on strict adherence to the health protocols and guidelines as issued by the Ministry of Health.

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