How coronavirus crisis is messing up our children

Your child may never fully recover from effects of staying out of school over the Covid-19 instigated closure, experts now warn.

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Emerging reports, qualified by Ministry of Education’s Kenya Basic Education Covid-19 Emergency Response Plan, show that the effects of closing schools for a long period could last a lifetime in some cases.

Schools are hubs of social and human interaction. In Kenya, 90,000 schools are closed and 18 million pre-primary, primary and secondary learners are at home, unable to move beyond their compounds or play with their mates.

Also tucked within their dingy camps are 150,000 refugee learners and over 300,000 teachers idling at home.

“The closure of schools coupled with restricted movement with acute challenges around space among poor households may exacerbate cases of exposure to pornographic materials, drug and substance abuse, increased rape, gender-based violence, including defilement of children,” the ministry’s report warns.

The report says children with special needs face greater prospects of neglect, abuse and segregation, leading to loneliness whose impact may last a lifetime if not addressed. Learners of low income households, the report adds, are the other unfortunate lot.

Most of these learners, especially those from arid and semi-arid areas, depend on schools for meals, sanitary towels and other health needs, and may never recover from lack of these.

A good number will never come back to school whenever they are reopened as they will have been sucked into other trades diametrically opposed to learning.

“Prolonged closure of schools could lead to increased child labour, school dropouts, child pregnancies and early marriages,” the report says.

For poor countries, the report says, the costs are even greater.

“Schools there often provide free lunches, staving off malnutrition, and serve as hubs for vaccinating children against other diseases. Pupils who stay at home now may never return. If the lockdown pushes their families into penury, they may have to go out to work.”

According to two sets of reports published in The Economist, if no special interventions are made by policy makers, closures will hurt the youngest school goers the most. They are the ones least likely to be helped by the much touted digital learning.

“You can make up for lost Maths with summer school. But you can’t easily do that with the stuff kids learn very young,” The Economist quoted Matthias Doepke of Northwestern University as saying.

The reports say closing schools even briefly hurts children’s prospects. One of them says pupils affected by weather-related closures do less well in exams while those hit by strikes are more likely to repeat a grade, and less likely to complete higher education, than their counterparts not affected by the strike.

Lifelong consequences

“Primary school is normally a crucial opportunity for gaps that emerged in early-years development to start narrowing, or at least to stop widening. That opportunity is now being missed,” the report says.

For a glimpse of the cost to the unluckiest young children, the report says, a study conducted in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in the 1960s found that a control group of young children from disadvantaged backgrounds who did not attend pre-school suffered lifelong consequences.

The Economist reports mirror closely the fears expressed by the MoE report on the effect of unequal access to learning portals and devices among learners.

While Education CS George Magoha has assured that learners will start from an equal footing whenever schools reopen, the ministry documents fears that the ongoing e-learning is likely to create inequalities in access to education.

And as The Economist reports shows, having access to the Internet or portals is not enough. Some homes may be quite noisy, overcrowded or chaotic for any meaningful learning to take place.

Some learners may be “virtual truants” while others may suffer misfortune of busy parents who may not prod them to attend lessons.

For learners from poorer backgrounds, all these may be missing from their narrow choices. Less well-off children are also less likely to have well-educated parents who coax them to attend remote lessons and help them with their work.

And for the younger learners, it is estimated that they lose between 20 and 50 per cent of the skills gained over the school year whenever they take longer summer breaks.

[The Writer is a 2019/2020 Bertha Fellow]

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