WHEN SHALL IT BE?

Sick students ignored in schools reopening tumult

Classrooms congested, there's barely walking room in dorms, sanitation facilities over-stretched.

In Summary
  • What happens to those with asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes or even cancer?
  • What preparations have been made for them? This is an urgent and crucial life and death matter.

When schools were closed in March at the onset of Covid-19, many believed this was a stop-gap measure and that the institutions would reopen shortly. But weeks turned into months and presently it dawned on students and parents that their lives had been irretrievably altered; the students were staring at the loss of one year academically and ultimately in their lives. There was nothing their poor parents could do about it.

Eventually, Education ministry officials declared 2020 a lost year and went to sleep, leaving the fate of the schools and their communities to ‘higher authorities’. This is the time the ministry should have earnestly started fundraising for expansion of schools’ infrastructure and the necessary basics for the observation of Covid-19 protocols, when schools eventually reopened.

Instead, officials started blubbering about opening schools, “next month”, “in September”, “October 5”, “October 19” and “January 2021” in no particular order. At times according to Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha, students and parents would be waiting for some committee to confirm these dates and at others, or he would be hoping that the head of state would save his skin and come up with a reopening date.

 

While Covid-19 funds were being used to expand health facilities, equip them and provide medics and Kenyans with protective gear, no one heard the Education ministry asking for a share to expand infrastructure in schools. Its officials did not even lament the loss of the funds to Covid millionaires.

Instead, the ministry’s top brass went around the country inspecting facilities in schools, in the initial stages giving them blanket non-compliance pronouncements. But when someone decided schools would finally reopen (whether in October or January), CS Magoha started issuing compliance certificates.

Is providing additional desks enough to protect our children from Covid-19? In fact, a bird tells me that most schools have enough desks, but nowhere to place them.

And now he is riding on the President’s Sh2 billion desks project as the prerequisite to the safe reopening of schools. But is providing additional desks enough to protect our children from Covid-19? In fact, a bird tells me that most schools have enough desks, but nowhere to place them.

Following spates of school fires some years back, the government made a lot of noise about safety, especially in boarding schools, with emphasis being on what we now know as physical distances especially in dormitories. At that time schools facilities, be it classrooms or dormitories, were overcrowded and the pronouncements by top government officials did not do much to decongest them.

I have written quite a bit about congestion in schools, the most heartbreaking being after the dormitory fire that claimed lives and limbs in 2017 at the Moi Girls School in Nairobi. Writing this one gives me the feeling of using mortar and pestle to pound water. In 2017 I wondered how a dormitory that held 230 students in 2001 amid complaints of overcrowding could hold 300 in that year as claimed.

Then last year, the government decided it would ‘wapende, wasipende’, have 100 per cent transition from primary to secondary school. Schools converted every available space, including laboratories, libraries, stores and in some cases even dispensaries into classrooms. This made a bad situation worse, with classrooms designed to hold 40 students, now packing more than 60. In the dorms, there is barely walking room between the double-decker beds and sanitation facilities are so over-stretched that most students are not able to use them during breaks.

This is the situation in schools, the same ones the government want to reopen as the Covid curve ‘flattens’. The institutions are jam-packed and one wonders where the extra desks would be placed. Maybe in playgrounds, in which case the ministry should have erected tents first.

 

Many private schools have been economically crippled and may not be able to reopen immediately. But at least, Magoha has an answer to that one – take your children to public schools, he tells parents who cannot afford private schools fees any more. In fact he tells them, public schools are free, which is strictly speaking untrue. Of more concern however is where this overload would be placed in an already jam-packed system.

Then there is the ‘small’ matter of students with pre-existing medical conditions that nobody is speaking about. What happens to those with asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes or even cancer? What preparations have been made for them? This is an urgent and crucial life and death matter that must be dealt with before the government can contemplate the reopening of schools, whether in October, January or any other time.