Year of turbulence for learners, teachers

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2020 00:00 |
Education Cabinet Secretary, Prof. George Magoha addresses students of Kereri Girls High School in Kisii county earlier in the year. Photo/PD/Robert Ochoro

“We have suspended learning in all our education institutions with immediate effect,” announced President Uhuru Kenyatta on March 15.

 The announcement was made eight days after the first case of Covid-19 was reported in the country.

Confirmation of the first case of Covid-19 was officially received by the Government on March 6 and by the time the President was announcing closure of schools, 27 persons were suspected to have come into contact with the first case.

Schools closed three weeks earlier than usual, as the Government moved to contain a surging number of coronavirus cases.

That marked the beginning of uncertainties surrounding resumption of learning, which also saw an interruption of almost the entire academic year.

This year has arguably been the most difficult for education, one of the key sectors in the country.

At first, there was hope that things would change for the better and that learning would resume, with the Government saying in April that candidates would still sit for their Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) and Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examination.

On April 22, President Uhuru said national exams would not be postponed, amid growing concerns of a school calendar disrupted by Covid-19.

He said the Ministry of Education would explore modalities and framework within which the exams could be undertaken and communicate a comprehensive schedule in due course.

“The biggest responsibility we have right now is to ensure that this year’s candidates will do the exams and we are exploring a framework to make sure this happens.

The Ministry of Education is exploring modalities, which should be put in place especially after the pandemic is addressed,” said the President during a live radio interview from State House Nairobi in April.

Adding: “As at now exams must proceed as planned but we must know how to catch up on lost time, when and how they will be done when the right time comes we will elaborate in more details and ensure all goes as planned.”

Panic and confusion

The Kenya National Examination Council (Knec) timetable indicated that KCPE was scheduled for October 27 – 29 while KCSE was to run from November 2 – 25.

His remarks came against the backdrop of growing panic and confusion over the status of education, given the uncertainty over how long it will take for Covid-19 to be completely wiped out, as numbers of those infected kept rising.

However, the State constantly assured that the situation was being keenly monitored to ensure children were safe at home until the disease was completely dealt with.

It was then that the Government called for online learning, radio and TV lessons, amid sharp criticism that some parts of the country were duly disadvantaged for this.

Also in April, the Ministry of Education raised concerns over possible severe effects of disruptions of the school calendar for an unspecified period of time.

The Ministry, thus, announced that it had developed an estimated Sh16 billion budget for the Kenya basic education Covid-19 emergency response plan, which sought to avert possible severe effects of schools’ disruption.

“Prolonged closure of schools could lead to child labour, school drop outs, child pregnancies and early marriages, loss of jobs and income for some non-teaching staff.

There is likelihood to be discrimination and stigmatisation of learners who would be affected and or infected,” read the plan.

More than 32,000 schools have been closed, which meant over 18 million pre-primaries, primary and secondary school learners and more than 150,000 refugees were confined at home and required home-based learning.

Possible strategies 

Similarly, the Ministry said over 300,000 teachers at home and required support to help learners to remotely learn and ensure continuity of the learning process.

Justifying the Covid-19 emergency plan, the Ministry stated that some of the severe effects could be rise in drop out rates, with young and adolescent girls being twice as likely to be out of school in crisis situations and face greater barriers to education and vulnerabilities such as domestic/gender-based violence when not in school.

Days went by and the severity of the disease was evident, which saw Education Cabinet Secretary Prof George Magoha reschedule reopening for the second term for May 4.

With prolonged closure and rising numbers for confirmed cases, Magoha in mid May appointed a nine-member team to explore the best possible strategies of restoring normalcy in the sector. 

He appointed Kenya Institute for Curriculum Development (KICD) chairperson Dr. Sarah Ruto to lead the Covid-19 Education response committee.

The response committee was mandated to advise the Cabinet Secretary on reopening of basic education institutions, comprising Pre-Primary, primary, secondary schools, teacher training colleges and adult education Institutions.

The team was also expected to review and reorganise the school calendar as part of the Covid-19 post-recovery strategy.

They were also to explore and advise the CS on health and safety measures to be put in place for the students, teachers and the entire school community.

Then came the proposals to partially re-open schools, but it was opposed by some quarters

The idea was to have examination classes go back to school first in September, but that was done away, with critics saying that such a decision was misinformed and against the wellbeing of learners.

In June, Magoha also insisted the proposal to reopen partially would be informed by prevailing circumstances of Covid-19.

The process of assessing the status of schools to re-open was then launched as the Government explored possible strategies to resume gradually.

But as days went by, the number of confirmed cases for Covid-19 kept soaring.

This led to Magoha directing that schools would not reopen until such a time that the disease would stop increasing and stabilise for at least 14 days.

“The elephant in the room is the situation of physical distancing but we are getting ‘solace’ from the fact that the disease is still increasing and the bottom line is that we will not open until the disease has stopped increasing and stabilised for 14 days,” said Magoha on June 29.

“When it stabilises, health experts and our Ministry will assess and report to the President the risks we are likely to take.

For now, I do not think the President will be happy to open schools when we are still spiking,” he added.

It was a tough balancing act for Magoha and even admitted that he has never seen anything like coronavirus in his 41 years of practice.

However, much as there was a proposal for partial reopening in September, Magoha was not convinced about reopening.

In July, Magoha announced that partial reopening had been shelved.

Postponement of opening for examination classes was attributed to the fact that it would mean there will be two Form One class cohorts in the 2021 academic calendar yet there is no capacity for that.

This, explained the CS, would pose a major infrastructural challenge as the number of students in schools is already high and it would overwhelm the system further.

Magoha also said the decision was informed by the fact that the country will experience equity challenges when only two basic education classes reopen and transition, while all other learners lose one year.

“Although the 2020 Form Four cohort will have left, the total candidature is 752,836 against a candidature of 1,191,326 in Standard Eight.

In view of the 100 per cent transition policy, this means that there will be no classrooms for 438,490 learners in Form One.

It will be therefore difficult to achieve the social/physical distancing measure,” explained the CS.

Reality struck on July 7, when Magoha met with education stakeholders and announced that the 2020 school calendar year was considered lost.

In true fashion of ‘year that never was’, Magoha said the 2020 academic calendar had been re-organised and all basic education learning institutions would resume in January, next year.

“Faced with this uncertain environment, the stakeholders have resolved to reopen all basic education learning institutions in January 2021.

This is based on the assumption that the infection curve will have flattened by December,” said Magoha.

It was also a year that saw private schools bear the brunt of prolonged closure and more than 200 were forced to close shop permanently.

Tight schedule

Then came September and the cases started declining, drastically.

Measures to reopen were initiated after the Government announced that it would procure locally assembled desks worth Sh1.9 billion.

The Government also issued stringent guidelines for reopening of basic education institutions amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The guidelines provided clear and actionable guidance on measures for physical re-opening safe operations through prevention, early detection, and control of Covid-19 in educational institutions.

The guidelines were clearest indications yet, that the Government was at an advanced stage in setting ground to reopen, amid proposals to resume in phases, starting with examination classes. 

The government also announced that schools would no longer be used as isolation centres.

On October 6, Magoha announced phased re-opening of schools, starting with Competence Based Curriculum (CBC) class Grade 4, Class 8 and Form 4 on Monday next week, despite a surge in Covid cases. 

A month later on November 16, Magoha announced full resumption of learning on January 4, amid a tight schedule.

The elephant in the room now is how to cope with strained infrastructure when all learners resume in January, with head teachers accusing the Government of failing to disburse funds to prepare.

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