Dilapidated schools face added risks amid talk of reopening
Mwangi Mumero and Noven Owitì
As debate rages on whether school opening dates should be brought closer than the initially projected January 2021, a section of Education stakeholdes across the country are expressing concern about the rush to get children back into classes before it could be ‘safely’ done.
Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha last week hinted that school might resume earlier than planned, going by the declining Covid-19 cases in the country.
But even with the January date, parents, teachers and health experts say the level of preparedness for schools and colleges remains low, mainly hampered by poor infrastructure and funding.
A spot check by Scholar in various rural primary schools in various parts of the country reveals how returning to school for pupils, teachers and their families is a more risky proposition due to the age and condition of the buildings to which they would return.
The schools have inadequate pit latrines, many with rusting corrugated walls and roofs.
Few schools have running water and even those with washing points, the supply is irregular.
“Even before the pandemic struck, the learning institutions had little in terms of infrastructure that can ensure hygiene, social distancing and sanitation,” a primary school teacher in Mombasa said on condition of anonymity.
He said washing hands after visiting these facilities is uncommon in many rural schools and overcrowded classes and dormitories remain the norm, especially with the government’s 100 per cent transition initiative.
Guidelines not sufficient
They say safety guidelines, issued by the Ministry of Education in June spelling out measures school heads should put in place before schools are issued with certificates allowing them to reopen, are still not sufficient to keep children safe.
The document, Guidelines on Health and Safety Protocols for Reopening of Basic Institutions amid Covid-19 Pandemic, directs school managers to revise institution budgets to prioritise infrastructure for social distancing, provision of water, sanitation and hygiene, and to focus on remedial education and training to compensate for lost instructional time.
But parents at a primary school in Ndhiwa constituency in Homa Bay county complain that shortage of classrooms let alone water and sanitation facilities makes adhering to the guidelines imposisible.
Parents of Gina Primary School in Kamenya location, South Kabuoch ward also had the same concerns.
A visit to the school lays bare the sorry state of the lower primary and early childhood education classrooms.
The buildings’ walls and roofs are made of worn out iron sheets, creating large openings, which can allow entry without using the main door.
The poor infrastructure of the school founded in 1943 signifies the irony of life as the education ministry strives to have school facilities such as classrooms improved to enable social distancing.
Few shared desks
The school community led by the school management committee chairman Silvester Odiyo fears that they may encounter learning hitches if the six classrooms are not built, ahead of the reopening. The school is also hit by acute shortage of desks.
He said before learning took a break many pupils sat on the floor while others shared the few available desks.
“We are worried that our children will not open school due to lack of classrooms.
It is ironical that some schools are struggling to expand already good classrooms yet we don’t have any,” said Odiyo.
The parents claimed that the school has been neglected by the national and Homa Bay county governments.
Kennedy Opiyo, another parent, appealed to Ndhiwa Member of Parliament Martin Owino, the Ministry of Education, the county government and well-wishers to intervene and rescue the pupils.
“We appeal for their intervention because the future prosperity of a community is determined by education.
Failure to prepare infrastructure for academics will jeopardise economic growth of the community,” he said.
In what could cause health hazards, the parents revealed that the school with a population of more than 400 learners and six teachers is afflicted by a serious shortage of latrines.
The state of affairs forces teachers and pupils to share a two door latrine after others became unusable.
The area chief Calvin Onyango noted that good infrastructure is key for realisation of good academic performance.
“We cannot expect good academic performance here. The school needs financial support,” Onyango said.
An observation by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation and the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows the fate of the over 15 million learners in primary and secondary schools in most countries globallyl is already affected by inadequate sanitation facilities.
And latest data from the WHO and the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) Joint Monitoring Programme, 43 per cent of schools around the world lacked access to basic handwashing with soap and water in 2019, a key condition for institutions to be able to operate safely in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Global school closures since the onset of the pandemic have presented an unprecedented challenge to children’s education and wellbeing,” said Henrietta Fore, Unicef executive director.
She said priority must be given to children’s learning. This means, making sure schools are safe to reopen, including with access to hand hygiene, clean drinking water and safe sanitation.
The report notes that around 818 million children lack basic handwashing facilities at their schools, which puts them at increased risk of the virus and other transmittable diseases.
More than one third of these children, (about 295 million) are from sub-Saharan Africa.
In the least developed countries, seven out of 10 schools lack basic handwashing facilities and half of schools lack basic sanitation and water services.
At the same time, one in three schools worldwide had either limited or no drinking water service.
The report stresses that governments seeking to control the spread of Covid-19 must balance the need for implementation of public health measures versus the associated social and economic impacts of lockdown measures.
“Access to water, sanitation and hygiene services is essential for effective infection prevention and control in all settings, including schools,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director general.
WHO guidelines for safe return to school include several protocols on hygiene measures, use of personal protective equipment, cleaning and disinfection, as well as providing access to clean water, hand-washing stations with soap, and safe toilets.