SCHOOLS REOPENING

Don’t send our children into Covid-19 gallows if you can avoid it

Panic didn't describe the mix-up.

In Summary

• Last time I wrote on this topic in these columns, I called for an education stakeholder meeting to deliberate on educator-sector Covid-19 response.

• I was gifted with that plus a task force and much more, confusion.

Kihumbuini Primary School headteacher Hassan Tala addresses teachers who turned up at the school, Kangemi on September 28, 2020.
Kihumbuini Primary School headteacher Hassan Tala addresses teachers who turned up at the school, Kangemi on September 28, 2020.
Image: ANDREW KASUKU

I’m no renegade. I’m a systems man. So, I don’t like being regimented, but an orderly way of doing things.

Like clarity, I prefer to see where I’m going because that makes the destination predictable and the journey enjoyable.

But that isn’t what I’m now, lost in the maze of unpredictability wrought on me by the Ministry of Education over schools’ opening. Like they say in lecture theatres, I’m not on the same page with those education stakeholders under voluble Cabinet Secretary Prof George Magoha.

Like many parents, I was led to believe schools will reopen in January 2021 only to be ambushed last week with a lot of haste to reopen schools in two-weeks’ time, but without money.

I mean, real money to cater for school fees, refurbish all those dilapidated school compounds, drop-toilets, dinning and dormitories; build new facilities to enable social distancing; procure piped water and water tanks; soaps and sanitisers; and money to pay workers and buy foodstuffs for the kids.

Such infrastructure was supposed to be in place in two weeks courtesy of “capitation” money from the ministry, which isn’t enough and hasn’t been disbursed.

If I sound confused, it is because a lot of what has been coming out of the ministry is sweet rhetoric but earns no confidence in practice. Kindly bear with me a while as I clear my head.

Last time I wrote on this topic in these columns, I called for an education stakeholder meeting to deliberate on educator-sector Covid-19 response. I was gifted with that plus a task force and much more, confusion. Initial notices were that parents ravaged by Covid-19 impacts and ambushed by the short lead-time to reopening, need not worry. They would be salvaged by government underwriting all school expenses for the year, fees included.

There was more. School infrastructure would be repaired and upgraded; desks, masks, soaps and sanitiser would be procured courtesy of government. All you needed was get your child to school when the whistle would be blown in January 2021.

Then like Competence-Based Curriculum before Covid-19, discordance set in. The ministry has found it difficult to raise funds required and can only shade about Sh15.5 billion to share, not enough to go round. Parents, “well-wishers” and the National Government-Constituency Development Fund should chip in, Ministry of Education says.

Parents must pay fees and buy masks despite the fact that KEMSA is overflowing with them. NG-CDF should build classes. Only 15 select schools per select Sub-Counties will get desks or lockers. No criteria, just bald statements revoking earlier promises.

Panic didn't describe the mix-up. Take the issue of desks that has been glossed over. Only select schools will get a few items but it has been couched as a stimulus project. So, are the desks and lockers a schools’ safety priority in aid of classroom social distancing or a conduit to benefit Jua Kali artisans?

As was planned — until President Kenyatta's announcement — children were to report to schools that don’t have the basics to keep coronavirus at bay. Classes, dormitories, dinners and toilets are the same since they left, if not worst for ware. But teachers, Boards of Management and – incredibly - parents must ensure there’s adequate distancing. With inelastic infrastructure, how was that going to be possible?

Come rains or shine, “children will sit outside”, answered Magoha. This is in reference to splitting classes into small cohorts of between 15 and 20 to avoid crowding and spread of the virus. But there is dead silence on the perilous issue of student/pupil-teacher ratio.

Last I checked, it was galloping to over 60:1 because of free primary and secondary education. There already exists a big shortage of teachers and extra classes for overburdened serving ones will only exacerbate the worsening situation. There will be no close supervision of the cheeky lads.

Then there’s the extra raft of protocols the same poor overworked teacher must oversee. Other than providing a Covid-19 free environment, they must mount courses for staff, learners, boards and parents on management of the virus, sensitise the community on hygiene, and form Covid-19 response school committees. Are schools opening for teachers to teach or become community healthcare workers?

Despite the urgency, we’re behaving as if the idea of reopening schools just came to us yesterday and wasn’t part of our education sector Covid-19 response strategy.

There’s something insidious too. Are we sure we’re opening schools because infections are waning or are doing so to save private schools from foreclosure? You see, there are 11,000 private schools where the elite take up to 2.5 million learners; 131 holding 45,000 learners have shut down; and 1,300 teachers are jobless.  

It would be the height of betrayal were the above true because we would be sending millions of innocents to a coronavirus guillotine in the name of learning institutions.

The magnitude of re-opening and keeping children safe is mind-boggling and not envious at all. According to the Ministry of Education Strategic Plan for 2018-2022, in 2018 four in every ten Kenyans are of pre-school, primary and secondary school going age (age 4-17 years).

Pre-Primary centres were 41,779 with an enrolment of 3,390,545; Primary schools were 37,910 with an enrolment of 10.5 million pupils; Secondary upped to 11,399 with an enrolment of 2.9 million students. Total 16,790,545.

As at 2018, TVET institutions were 1,300 and enrolment at 363,884 while there were 74 universities with total university student enrolment of 537,733. Total 901,617.

There are 17,692,162 million Kenyans in actively in school and government spends on about 5.3 percent of GDP on them. This the multitude that the ministry needs to keep safe.

Keep children away from school until we’re ready.