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Kenyan families suffer spillover effects from school closures

Kibera Primary School, Nairobi, Kenya, September 18, 2012. Photo via ARC / Flickr CC BY 2.0.

Editor's note: This post was co-written by Global Voices contributor Bonface Witaba and guest contributor Sri Ranjini Mei Hua, a researcher and writer from Singapore.

In March, the Kenya government announced the suspension of schools as part of its measures to curb the spread of COVID–19. The announcement threw the school curriculum into disarray, affecting 18 million learners nationwide. It also threatened to derail progress toward inclusive, equitable and quality education as described in Agenda 4 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

As part of efforts to ensure continued learning while protecting the health, safety, and well-being of learners and educators, the Ministry of Education, in collaboration with education partners and stakeholders, designed the Kenya Basic Education COVID-19 Emergency Response Plan, with the objective to promote “out-of-classroom learning” through radio, TV, e-cloud, and mobile phones.

Today, in spite of efforts by the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) to expand online content delivery, an estimated 80 percent of learners still do not have access to remote lessons, according to a study carried out by Usawa Agenda (an education network).

This is due, in part, to unequal access to technology such as computers, laptops or smartphones, as well as prohibitive internet costs and unreliable internet access, especially for learners from disadvantaged families and marginalized communities. Even where the technology is available, there are concerns around young children’s unsupervised internet usage.

Prior to the lockdown, learners were able to access free meals at school. Girls were able to access sanitary towels through an initiative to provide free sanitary towels. However, with the prolonged shutdown, Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha declared the school calendar as “lost,” meaning schools will remain closed until 2021, leaving thousands of students in a dire situation as their families are unable to afford food and basic necessities due to recent unemployment.

In Kibra, for instance, an area deemed to be the largest informal settlement in Nairobi (and in Africa), most learners are unable to access KCID’s “out-of-classroom learning” curricula, and most do not have a place to study, much less play or exercise.

(For many years, the area was called “Kibera,” a mispronunciation of the word kibra, a Nubian word for “forest.” Kenya's Nubian community feels using “Kibera” robs them of their identity).

In a Skype interview with Asha Jaffar, a journalist residing in Kibra who covers stories about the plight of the Kibra community, Jaffar told Global Voices that there were a limited number of free libraries that allowed up to 10 learners at a time to do their homework. However, these learners are required to give up the space to the next lot of learners after about an hour. She added that free tuition initiatives for learners have had to scale down due to social distancing rules imposed by the government and health officials.

Asha Jaffar, a journalist and Kibra resident, points over Kibra settlement. Photo by Kibra Food Drive, August 2020, used with permission.

The long-term impact of school closures are wide-ranging and even more devastating to families living below the poverty line. As food security takes precedence over education, learners — particularly girls and young women — from vulnerable families often have to work on farms and contribute to household chores or care work instead of learning.  This played out during the lockdown which coincided with the peak planting season in March.

Some girls may even be subject to early marriage which puts them at a higher risk of dropping out of school, often as a result of early pregnancies. Hence, educational outcomes for the most vulnerable families will suffer as they have little reason to send their children back to school when it reopens.

In  March, Jaffar launched Kibra Food Drive to help alleviate hunger in the Kibra community through donations of food parcels to the most vulnerable families. It started through donation solicitation via M-Pesa (a mobile wallet), with the aim of feeding 100 vulnerable families a week, but with an increasing need for support, the initiative has fed 2,400 families, as of August 5. Jaffar recognizes that providing free meals is not enough because the families ultimately need support to start small businesses. However, the community remains in a deadlock as trade and economic activity stalls.

A volunteer delivers food to Kibra residents through the Kibra food drive in Kibra, Kenya, August 2020. Photo by Kibra Food Drive, used with permission.

Kenya anticipates a new academic year in 2021 — but this all depends on the number of COVID-19 infections — according to Education Cabinet Secretary Magoha.

Several education experts say that this period is an opportune time for the government to conduct a gap analysis of the education system and perform a complete reboot in the quest to provide equitable access to learning for all as envisioned in the Kenya Basic Education COVID-19 Emergency Response Plan. The first step would be to allocate budget toward improving the school infrastructure in terms of lighting, desks and chairs and providing reliable electricity supply — especially in rural areas. Next, the government could lower water and electricity tariffs for schools as these huge costs are hurting their operations.

Only when these priorities are sorted can efforts resume on a stalled digital literacy project initiated in 2013 by the government. The digital literacy program aimed to ensure that learners in lower primary school (grades 1-3) can use digital technology and communication tools, with an overarching objective to transform learning in Kenya into a 21st-century education system.

The project stalled barely got off the ground after its pilot phase due to failure to meet intended outcomes and educators being ill-prepared to scale out the initiative. To achieve success, the program requires extensive ICT training for educators so they can effectively use and troubleshoot these gadgets.

Kenya has progressed from a Universal Primary Education (UPE) agenda into an Education For All (EFA) agenda. UPE, the second goal in the United Nations Millennium Development Goal, aimed to ensure that by 2015, all children around the world completed primary schooling, whereas EFA, was a global movement led by UNESCO, aimed to bring the benefits of education to “every citizen in every society.” With these gains, Kenya cannot afford to roll back on progress.

Kenya’s next challenge is now to ensure that learners have access to digital literacy projects that provide not just conventional education, but holistic, skills-based, autonomous learning in order to meet its education vision and sustainable development goals by 2030.

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