Coronavirus exposes policy gaps in school system

It is one year since President Uhuru Kenyatta ordered the closure of learning institutions to curb the spread of Covid-19.

On March 15, last year, while issuing the directive on closure of schools, the president announced that two more persons had tested positive for coronavirus.

The country confirmed the first coronavirus case on March 6, last year.

“We have suspended learning in all our education institutions with immediate effect. Consequently, and to facilitate a phased approach, primary and secondary day schools are to suspend operations from tomorrow,” the Head of State said.

“For those in boarding schools, school administration is to ensure that students are home by Wednesday, March 18, 2020 while universities and tertiary institutions to close by Friday, March 20, 2020,” he added.

Two months later, it became apparent that the first school term had been lost and that learning would not resume for the second term.

Government intervention through the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development to have learners in public schools take lessons from home faced challenges.

Most parents were unable to keep their children glued to radio and television to take lessons. In some cases, children did not have the necessary infrastructure such as internet and electronic gadgets to take online lessons.

Private schools, most of which had put proper infrastructure in place, rolled out online lessons for their children.

Schools that could not keep up with online lessons folded up. This trend was replicated even in public universities with some failing to mount online classes on time.

Parents were confronting new realities of containing their children at home and managing teenagers who all of a sudden had so much free time on their hands.

Partially open

Months later, cases of teenage pregnancies, drugs and substance abuse, child labour and unruly behaviour set in among some children.

By August last year, it was again clear that the second school term had been lost even as pressure piled on government to partially open learning institutions.

With national examinations suspended, uncertain transition to next classes, challenges in mounting online lessons and an unclear future of the country’s education, the sector was in a mess.

The net effect was job losses for some teachers and school staff, hopelessness among learners and parents, lost opportunities and fear of the unknown as Kenyans waded through the pandemic.

With Covid-19 cases rising and countries that had implemented partial opening shutting again, the education sector was in confusion.

Desperate efforts to avert loss of the entire 2020 academic year and delayed transition of learners pushed the government to open schools.

With increasing cases of pregnancies, drug and substance abuse, forced marriage, forced female genital mutilation, promiscuity, and child labour, the cost of keeping schools shut was dire.

It also emerged that further delayed resumption of learning for candidate classes – Grade 4, Class Eight and Form Four – would have posed a serious transition crisis in 2022.

Buoyed by fully reopened country and economic sectors returning to normalcy, the government felt it was not prudent to keep children at home.

Partial reopening of schools started in October last year and progressively admitted the rest of the classes to salvage the academic year.

Consequently, the effect of the pandemic on the education sector exposed serious policy gaps that must now be addressed. These gaps must top the agenda for the sector, with adequate government funding for basic and higher learning institutions.

With social distancing requirement, infrastructure improvement must be an immediate concern.

The Ministry of Education also needs to prioritise investment in ICT in schools and colleges as an alternative mode of curriculum delivery. If well implemented, this would partly take care of the perennial shortage of teachers.

Of immediate need, however, will be retooling of teachers with ICT skills to offer online lessons.

Gains of the Competency Based Curriculum must be tapped by re-looking at assessments and examinations to avoid transition hiccups.

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