Students forget lessons after spending months out of school

Teachers have an uphill task to address a slump in performance

In Summary

• Most pupils come from poor homes that do not own a TV or computer for e-learning

• Many have been helping parents with chores and old teachings are now alien to them

Boys out of school due to the Covid-19 pandemic sit on the street to repair their bicycles after riding in Lodwar, Turkana county
Boys out of school due to the Covid-19 pandemic sit on the street to repair their bicycles after riding in Lodwar, Turkana county

Barely three months after schools were closed to curb the spread of Covid-19, Victoria Kanini discovered that her five-year-old son could not write his name.

The young boy, a pre-primary two pupil, had separated letters in his name and left out a letter.

“He has known how to write his name for years. That is why I was so surprised when he had to think before writing it and still got it wrong,” she said.


Kanini, a clothes vendor in Gikomba, never gets time for homeschooling.


She expected that schools would only close for a short time. “I have been so busy with work, I didn’t realise that my son was forgetting almost everything he had been taught. Even still, I can barely do anything about it,” she said.

The government closed schools in March, after the coronavirus hit the country. They were partially reopened on October 12, admitting candidates and the pioneer class of CBC students after seven months out.

Zahra Ngosi teaches Class 8 pupils at Kilimani Primary School on October 12
Zahra Ngosi teaches Class 8 pupils at Kilimani Primary School on October 12

The rest are now on their eighth month home, which will stretch to 10 by the time all classes are recalled in January.

Most teachers who have learners in Form 4, Class 8 and Grade 4 have been forced to revisit topics already covered to refresh the memory of the pupils.

A mathematics teacher at Kilimani Primary School was not surprised when Class 8 pupils could not calculate simple math.

“They are mixing up multiplication and division and other simple skills. I have had to revise the general topics before continuing with the syllabus,” teacher Rahma Ngosi said.

At Ofafa Jericho Primary School, results for the just-concluded Knec examinations were received with apathy. Both the teachers and pupils held minimal expectations.


Joyline Amuga termed the 28 out of 50 scores for her Class 8 mathematics class as average. She knew it was way below what her students were capable of, but she was not surprised.

“They would have easily scored at least 35 in that paper, but having been away from school for close to seven months, this performance is understandable. We shall use the results to gauge how far back we need to revise,” she explained.

Countrywide, as many as eight in 10 children learnt little or nothing since schools closed because of Covid-19, a study in September found.

He has known how to write his name for years. That is why I was so surprised when he had to think before writing it and still got it wrong
Parent Victoria Kanini


A recent study by Unicef anticipates low educational achievement on average after schools reopen following a long-term shutdown.

Changes in parents’ employment status and access to food, for example, will directly impact students' performance, the study noted.

“Families with financial resources, stable employment and flexible work-from-home and childcare arrangements will likely weather this storm more easily than families who are renting their houses, working in low-paying fields that are hardest hit by the economic impacts, and experiencing higher rates of food insecurity, family instability and other shocks from this disruption,” reads the report.

Each day of closure, the study finds, is associated with a drop in scores in math and English.

Ofafa Jericho headteacher Elizabeth Ochieng’ understands the inequalities that exist among the pupils, who mostly come from slums near the school.

A girl carries a load of building stones. Child labour has been rising since schools were closed in March
A girl carries a load of building stones. Child labour has been rising since schools were closed in March

“We only had three children with 80 marks and above, and they are not the usual best-performing pupils we were used to. Now a child who was getting 90 marks before schools closed is getting 60,” she said.

“Most pupils were opening their books for the first time when we opened. The biggest population comes from low-income households, who cannot afford to study online and do not own a television.”

Like they do during their holidays, most pupils spent most of their time helping their parents fend for their families and, therefore, had no time to study.

“Being in school helps many of the pupils. Some have been relying on the school meals completely, even saving some to take to their siblings back home. When schools close, they have to find a means of helping to put food on the table,” she said.

Ochieng’ said it would be inevitable that such children had a reversed or stunted academic development. While pupils from informal settlements lagged behind for lack of resources, their counterparts in more privileged set-ups did not progress much.

Busy schedules for parents and lack of information meant parents were unable to establish a routine for the young learners and follow through their directives.

Counselling psychologist Dr Margaret Kagwe
Counselling psychologist Dr Margaret Kagwe


Dr Margaret Kagwe, a counselling psychologist, said children need a routine for positive cognitive development.

“Children and teenagers, depending on their age, are curious, questioning and adventurous. Unless a routine is established and rules strictly adhered to, they easily fall out,” she said.

Kagwe said there will be physical awkwardness and fear as children learn to adapt to the new Covid-19 rules in a school setup.

“They are afraid that what they do may affect them and others. Since different children are taught differently by their guardians, they will remain uncertain on what is the correct thing to do,” she said.

Full brain development of a child, the doctor explained, includes logical reasoning, intelligence, memory, language and information processing.

Teachers are taught a standard way of developing all these skills for different age groups, unlike most parents, who use their intuition to make the decision.

While some pupils develop quickly and efficiently, others take time to master some skills.

“Parenting approaches differ, yet that will be the defining factor on how well the children grew during this period when they were out of school for too long,” Kagwe said.

“A very permissive parent could raise a child who has difficulties taking no for an answer, and an overly strict one could create a very fearful child. Balance is key.”

Without a constant reminder of what is right, how issues should be approached, how problems should be solved, child development is slowed.

“That is why teachers will generally experience a tough time bringing children back to speed,” she said.

Depending on the environment the school creates and how ecosystems coexist, the children’s ability to fit back may be quick or slow.

The doctor explained that children not only follow what they are asked to do but also what they observe from the people around them.

“If parents are not adhering to government directives on keeping safe, their children, too, may not, and they will feel very uncomfortable following the rules in school,” she said.

Kagwe advised parents whose children are yet to report to school to follow the rules and find ways to engage teachers on how they need to direct their children.

She also urged the authorities to ensure the mental well-being of teachers is taken care of as they are equally affected by the pandemic.

A report in June found that 400 teachers had sought mental health support over depression between April and May.


A study on the effects of staying out of school long in America found that education interruptions pose greater harm to the academic performance of children in the early grades.

The study by the National Council of Education showed that the children between five to nine years lost the ability to concentrate on assignments and showed signs of depression upon returning to school.

“Losses in learning are more dramatic for math-related subjects than for reading and language arts, as the factual and procedural learning requires extensive practice. Math computation and spelling skills deteriorate most,” researchers said.

They state that the relative lack of opportunity to practise computation and spelling may mean that these facts and procedural skills are most susceptible to decay.

While Dr Kagwe believes that the findings are similar to the Kenyan system, she argued that teenagers, especially between nine and 14 years, are more likely to find it difficult to fit back in.

While the younger children, though curious, follow instructions as they are told, teenagers demand reasons for the rules, she said. They have the ability to challenge and think on their own.

“Their academic — just like mental — growth has been affected greatly because teenagers learn and seek validation from their peers more. Most also hold the belief that authorities are only there for the laws,” she said.

Having been away from their peers, most teenagers’ development has been greatly slowed down and important issues forgotten.

“Every child has emotional, psychological and spiritual needs, all which directly affect their academics. Therefore, we can understand why education will suffer before normalcy is restored,” Kagwe said.

She urged parents to understand their children’s lapses and lift them up, manage their behaviours appropriately and guide them consistently.

Edited by T Jalio

WATCH: The latest videos from the Star