What future for education after pandemic ‘holiday’?

World faces a 'generational catastrophe' that could waste untold human potential

In Summary

• Children who should be in school are now helping their families run their businesses

• Used to hustling, will they have the motivation to sit in class and submit to authority?

Students in Valley View Mathare slums using the a-Academy content in a class lesson
Students in Valley View Mathare slums using the a-Academy content in a class lesson
Image: FILE

Trisha Mutua, 10, is restless. It’s 9pm, but she’s bristling with abundant energy. Her mother thinks Trisha doesn’t catch sleep early these days because she’s simply not tired enough to doze off.

“When schools were on, Trisha would be picked up at 6.45am and dropped back home at 5pm, and she would be exhausted by then,” Trisha’s mother Beryl Mutua explains. “She would often doze off before dinner. Nowadays, getting her to sleep is like inflicting punishment.”

All educational institutions in Kenya were closed in March due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The ongoing closure of schools is the longest in Kenya’s history. It is not clear when schools will, reopen if statements by Education CS George Magoha are anything to go by. Initially setting a tentative opening date in January 2021, Magoha now says classes will resume only when the pandemic is under control.

Some schools have resorted to online classes, but the cancellation of national examinations and the government’s decision to retain learners in the classes they began in 2020 means parents and learners are no longer motivated to keep abreast with lessons. Even if the learners wanted to keep up with studies, many families do not have regular access to radio, television and the Internet.

The national census of August 2019 found half of Kenyan households have a radio. 41 per cent have television, just 9 per cent have a computer, while 18 per cent have access to the Internet. This implies that Kenyan learners are not benefiting from online learning. It is also clear from census results that radio lessons conducted through the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation are not reaching most households.

That leaves parents and children with plenty of free time to fill up with activities. “In school, the children have a routine, they have teachers and fellow learners. Those are things they are lacking now,” says Beryl Mutua, Trisha’s mother. “It’s challenging for us because we have to provide all those missing aspects of our children’s lives: the educational, the social and the spiritual.”

Margaret Gombe, another parent, says she and her neighbours in their block of flats organised a joint play schedule for their children.

“It is not easy keeping your kids indoors when they can hear the neighbour’s children playing outside. To solve that problem, parents here agreed that play time starts at 10am, and all children be taken indoors at 1pm,” she explains.

With the play schedule already in place, it gets easier to slot in time for the children to keep up with school work or to sleep in the afternoon.

Parents who run businesses have co-opted their children to keep them occupied. All over the country, children can be seen working as shopkeepers and roadside stall attendants. Teenage boys are getting into the boda boda business, too, attracted by the cash that comes with it. The boys are below the legal age of driving, but out in the rural areas, the authorities don’t seem to pay much attention to the teenage riders. Some of the teenage riders come from families that really need the extra cash coming, but many are in it for fun.

Children helping the family in business is not a new thing. What’s new is the length of time in which children who should be in school are participating in the cash economy. This could have negative consequences when schools eventually reopen. Will learners already used to hustling have the motivation to sit in a classroom? Will learners getting used to making their own decisions submit themselves to school authority?

It is officially acknowledged that the number of teenage pregnancies is rising because of the prolonged school closure. Most recently, there was controversy in Machakos county over claims that over 4,000 teenage girls had gotten pregnant in the first five months of this year alone.

The government has said all teenage mothers have the right to resume classes when schools reopen, but nursing a baby tends to interfere with educational aspirations. For example, the teenage mother might have to transfer to a school closer to home and might not have time for extra-curricular activities, such as sports.

Some parents are taking steps to keep their children focused on education.  Catherine Ndwiga says, “Each day from Monday to Friday, I spend 45 minutes doing tuition with my son. I had to be tough at first but he’s now used to the routine. Together, we revise a different subject each day.”

Parents who can afford it are paying for private tuition at home. Private tuition is a big financial relief for teachers from private schools because, unlike their counterparts employed by the government, they have not received salaries since schools were closed in March.

Concerns over the length of the school closure has prompted the government to consider a communal learning programme in each village, bringing together children and teachers for basic educational activities. This would be especially useful in rural areas, where most households have no access to online learning and cannot afford private tuition.

In urban areas, children are getting so engrossed in digital technology that it could present challenges when schools reopen. Gray Kassich, an IT expert in Nairobi, is concerned about the effects of digital TV and online streaming on young minds.

“I think too much exposure to technology can be harmful in future because they might find the normal classroom boring because it is not as dynamic as digital media,” he says.

Kassich limits the amount of time his nine-year-old son spends watching television by engaging him in traditional forms of learning, such as board games.

A growing realisation that Covid-19 might persist for the foreseeable future has prompted calls across the world that schools be opened. Early this month, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres called on world leaders to place the reopening of schools as a top priority.

"Now we face a generational catastrophe that could waste untold human potential, undermine decades of progress and exacerbate entrenched inequalities," he said.

Guterres added that continued school closures have impacts not just on education but also on child nutrition, child marriage and gender equality.