Doctors warn against reopening of schools

Monday, June 8th, 2020 00:00 |
Prof Owino Ong’or, a don at the Moi University’s School of Medicine and a specialist physician at the Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital in Eldoret.

Winstone Chiseremi @Wchiseremi

The government has been urged to tread carefully on plans re-open learning institutions in the wake of rising infections of Covid-19 unless the nation courts a disaster.

The caution was issued by the Kenya Medical Association officials and doctors led by Prof Owino Ong’or, a specialist physician at the Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital in Eldoret.

“The Ministry of Education must come up with well-thought-out guidelines to prevent the spread of coronavirus for the safety of the learners,” he said.

However, in his address to the nation on Saturday, President Uhuru Kenyatta said schools will open for third term on September 1.

He also ordered the Ministry of Education to announce the new school calender by mid-August. 

Dr Ong’or, who is also a lecturer at the Moi University’s School of Medicine, wants the government to address safety and health risks before allowing the schools to re-open. 

“The  State should first organise for spacing of desks in classrooms, availing facilities for washing hands and adequate supplies for disinfectant for the learners as well as teaching and non-teaching staff,” he said. 

Ong’or supports  plans to reopen schools on condition that the Ministry of Health and World Health Organisation (WHO) protocols are strictly adhered to. 

However, he wants the government to first put in place a raft of safety and health measures to guarantee the learners a conducive environment to study in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic.

Widespread testing 

Speaking  to Scholar  in his Eldoret office, Ong’or said such measures include enhanced hygiene—hand washing and sanitisation—social distancing and wearing of face masks in the school compounds.

Kenya Medical Association president Dr Jacqueline Kitulu. Photo/PD/FILE 

“The ministries of Health and Education have the duty of ensuring learners are trained on how to use the Personal Protective Equipment (such as masks),” he said.  

“Some learners come from rural areas where they have never used the PPEs and it is vital that measures be put in place to help them on how handle the situation to avoid contracting the disease,” he added.

In a memorandum to the Senate Committee on Covid-19, KMA warned that schools should only reopen if measures have been taken to ensure the environment is safe. 

“The only reason that would justify reopening the institutions must be evidence that the epidemiological pattern of the pandemic is well known by means of widespread testing and surveillance,” said the memo signed by KMA president Dr Jacqueline Kitulu. 

Overcrowded schools  

“We believe if the health system is sufficiently strengthened to handle any surge in Covid-19 cases as a result of loosening the restrictions currently in place, the question of reopening educational institutions would not be a matter for discussion,” she added. 

KMA has called for elimination or reduction of the risk of community transmissions as evidenced by reducing or zero daily infections for at least two weeks.

“The health system must prepared to handle any potential surge in transmission that might result from reopening,” said Kitulu. 

President Uhuru Kenyatta directed the closure all educational insttutions effective March 15 after the reporting of coronavirus patients in Kenya.  

Recently, lecturers of public universities, a human rights body and the Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut) rejected a proposal for partial reopening of schools in June, arguing that Kenya risks reaching the 30,000 mark in new Covid-19 infections by August.

Last week, Education Cabinet Secretary Prof George Magoha said consultations on the best strategies for the education sector are on course, noting that the final decision the Ministry takes will be squarely informed by the safety of children. 

“Whatever advise we give will be an informed one and the determinant will be safety of children,” the CS said at the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD). 

“For instance in South Korea, you have seen how children are prepared before they enter classrooms and everything is done but what has happened there… they have closed the schools again,” he said. 

Pupils in class. Photo/Courtesy

Although hundreds of schools began the process of reopening last month in South Korea, many have since closed down again due to a spike in Coronavirus cases.

 Magoha, a proffessor in medicine, has aloso been sceptical about reopening schools saying the ministry will focus on coming up with strong mitigation measures that will be required in schools based on recommendations of the National Covid-19 response committee and Ministry of Health. 

According to Prof Ong’or,  all stakeholders must ensure sitting spaces in classrooms are staggered and made up of maximum of 20 students instead of the usual 40 to 60 learners before the outbreak of the disease.

To avoid over-crowding, Ong’or suggests that lessons be held in shifts as part of the measures to help contain the spread of Covid-19. 

He asked the government to deploy public health officials in all public schools to carry out fumigation of the classrooms, staffrooms, dining halls, dormitories and even the play grounds. 

“It is prudent for the government to state categorically what long-term and sustainable measures it has put in place to secure the lives of learners against the spread of Covid-19 pandemic,” argued Ong’or.

He said the State would be required to urgently hire additional teaching staff to cope with the high number of pupil enrolment following the government’s directive on 100 per transition policy.

“The 100 per cent transition policy will need to be relooked at due to congestion and discomfort among the learners owing to the WHO  protocol on physical distancing to ensure people do not mix more than necessary,” he said. 

Covid-19 committee 

Prof Ong’or called for all learners to be tested before for Covid-19 stepping in the school compound to ensure those found with the virus are isolated and treated before they join their colleagues after healing.

The Ministry of Education appointed a nine-member committee on May 12 , 2020 , to craft a back-to-school roadmap and advise it on the steps to take in a sector rocked by Covid-19.

The Covid-19 Education Response Committee led by KICD chairperson Sarah Ruto on Friday handed a final report to Prof Magoha. 

Top on the agenda of Ruto-led team has been to advise the CS on ways of no boarding students when schools reopen and document corona virus related matters, lesson learned and recommendations for future preparedness. 

“The Ministry will take seriously the recommendations of this Committee and use them to step up further dialogue with all stakeholders within and outside government to ensure appropriate and decisive measures are put in place to facilitate resumption of learning,” the CS said. 

The school calendar is expected to be reorganised despite the minister’s earlier assurances that the national examinations set for October and November will go on as planned.

Already, President Kenyatta has directed the Ministry to fast track and finalise on-going consultations to provide a substantive calendar for the sector. 

According to Prof Magoha, the ministry will outline the level of preparedness that will be required of all stakeholders involved in the running  of learning institutions.  

“The Government, in consultation with development partners, is putting in place mitigation measures in all schools to prevent Covid-19 from penetrating to the learning institutions,” said Magoha while receiving the report on Friday.

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