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Can our schools handle demands that come with Covid-19?

Wednesday June 03 2020
Classroom

A student wears a face mask as a preventive measure against the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in the classroom at the Jean Benoit College in Yaoundé, Cameroon, on June 1, 2020. PHOTO | AFP

By SYOVATA NDAMBUKI

It has been roughly two-and-a-half months since schools closed in an effort to curb the spread of Covid-19.

As the debate on whether to reopen schools or not heats up, we have to think about what needs to be done. One of the key concerns is how classrooms would look like if learners are to observe social distancing.

This concern leads us to consider how our schools are designed in the first place. Are they built to comply with social distancing? What areas could be potential hotspots in a school and what changes should be made now and in future?

Simon Onyonyi, a Fourth Year student at Zetech University, was just seven months away from graduating when learning institutions closed. He was eager to complete his undergraduate course and proceed to further his studies.

Classroom 1

A crowded Kenyan classroom. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

While he continues to attend his classes online, he is hopeful that the schools will reopen soon.

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“Virtual classes cannot measure up to physical ones especially because they lack face to face interaction,” he says.

Despite wanting to resume physical classes soon, he fears contracting the virus and infecting his family. He also questions students’ ability to observe the measures that have been put in place to ensure their safety.

“People have a tendency of following rules for just a few days and then revert to what they’re used to,” he notes, wondering what would happen should a student or staff contract the virus.

Public transport

“Would the entire school be shut down, or would a few individuals be quarantined?” he poses.

He also worries about using public transport to travel to and fro school, afraid that it could increase the possibility of contracting and spreading the virus.

While these concerns are valid, reopening schools is inevitable, whether the pandemic fizzles out or sticks around. In fact, some countries such as Taiwan, Germany, Austria, Denmark, Singapore, France and Norway, among others, have reopened their schools. However, strict measures mostly touching on social distancing, wearing masks, hygiene and aeration have been put in place.

In Taiwan, learners went back to school in late February. Images shared online show learners wearing masks while in class. To enforce social distancing, each desk has been partitioned with plastic barriers to resemble tiny office cubicles.

In addition, windows remain open for ventilation, while school trips and sports activities have been cancelled.

Learners in Germany resumed classes in mid-May, but the reopening was phased, giving priority to those in upper classes or in their final years of study.

To reduce the number of learners occupying a classroom, classes have been divided into groups and each group has specific days to be in class. That means if group A learners attend classes today, group B learners will attend tomorrow.

Notable is one high school in Northern Germany that is dedicated to testing students for Covid-19 every two weeks as a preventive measure. The tests are free, optional and the results are sent via email, a day later.

One key concern would be whether virus cases increase, stagnate or decrease in the countries where classes are ongoing. In Germany, the curve has been on a downward trend since mid-May.

The country was recording over 4,000 daily cases, but is now recording less than 500 a day.

 Taiwan has had a near-flat curve for the past two months, with a minor spike on April 19, when it recorded 22 cases. The country has less than 500 total cases so far, and a majority of them have recovered.

A typical classroom

Only seven deaths have been recorded in the country, hence attracting praises for having the best response to the pandemic so far.

Social distancing in and outside classrooms, ventilation, controlling movement within the school, hygiene and wearing masks seem to be the highlights in countries that have reopened their schools. But before we compare ourselves to developed countries, let us look at how a typical classroom here in Kenya is designed.

Paul Kariuki, a civil/structural engineer, explains that Kenya’s schools are guided by a Ministry of Education manual that outlines how a classroom should be designed with safety in mind.

A standard classroom, should measure 7.5 metres by 6 metres. Such a classroom is only allowed to accommodate up to 30 learners, if they are using one seater desks. However, if they are using two-seater desks, 40 learners can occupy one classroom.

Doorways should be wide, so should staircases, in the case of storeyed buildings. Ventilation is another key guideline as schools are required to ensure corridors receive plenty of air.

Classrooms, too, should be well lit with natural lighting. The windows should be easy to open and without grills.

As for furniture, desks and chairs should ensure students maintain the correct posture while in class, while the space between every two desks should be at least two feet wide.

In addition, the floors should be kept clean and clear of clutter to facilitate safe movement.

While these design instructions sound good on paper, many schools defy these guidelines.

“There is a high demand for education and schools are cropping up everywhere without adhering to these guidelines,” Mr Kariuki says.

Besides, inequality among learners has always been a long-running issue, especially when it comes to teacher-student ratio, quality of constructions and access to learning materials.

Many students in marginalised areas learn under trees, and other’s in mud-walled classrooms with no desks or chairs. In densely-populated urban areas, poorly ventilated classrooms can host up to 50 learners.

Rethinking classrooms

Kariuki notes that this lack of equity in Kenya’s schools makes it harder to come up with a fair back-to-school strategy. For instance, how will learners observe social distancing when they have to share books or when five of them have to share a desk? What if their classrooms lack proper ventilation?

Mr Risley Kavu, an interior designer, says that a classroom’s look and feel is crucial in improving focus, more so in children.

“Simple things like bright colours, proper ventilation, natural lighting and a good outdoor view boost mood and concentration,” he explains.

As learners go back to school, they will need maximum concentration to catch up with lost time. However, they may also grapple with anxiety from fear of getting sick.

It is, therefore. imperative that stakeholders think about classroom arrangements and design meticulously before reopening schools. Mr Kavu cautions against arranging desks in a manner that makes the classroom feel like an exam room style, whereby students are isolated in the name of social distancing.

“Students can sit in circular or oval arrangements, as if they’re conducting focused group discussions. This creates room for social distancing without compromising team work and the feeling of togetherness in a class,” he says.

He also suggests a hotel-like arrangement, whereby desk mates sit facing each other (but with space between their desks) instead of a side-by-side arrangement. This helps retain the warmth and comfort of having a desk mate in a time when social lives are disrupted.

To avoid dullness in classrooms, Mr Kavu proposes encouraging children to create artworks to be hanged on the walls. The artwork could depict adults or children exercising preventive measures such as social distancing, wearing masks or washing hands.

Such artwork will not only brighten up classroom, but will also be a constant reminder of what they need to keep doing to keep the virus at bay.

Open-plan dormitories

Needless to mention, windows should remain open and students should ensure they maintain a clean environment.

On hygiene, cleaning classroom furniture should be part of learners’ daily routine. While some schools have wooden desks and chairs, others have metallic ones. Mr Kavu says that metallic furniture is easier to clean as wood tends to rot gradually when exposed to water. Wood also absorbs water quite fast, especially if it is old, making it difficult to clean, therefore, when replacing classroom furniture, school heads could consider these factors.

For boarding schools, open plan dormitories and staffrooms are a major concern. The virus is likely to spread fast where many people occupy one space without demarcations.

Partitioning is one way to reduce numbers of learners sleeping or sitting in one area. The ministry’s safety guidelines require schools to leave at least 1.2 metres between beds while the pathway should be 2 metres wide or more. For schools that have followed these guidelines, partitioning may be much simpler if they have the money to implement these changes.

“Schools can use gypsum boards to easily partition staffrooms and dormitories. Ply wood is also a cheaper option, though not the best when compared to gypsum boards. Ply wood is weaker, and if it breaks, it can cause accidents,” Mr Kavu says.

Before partitioning dormitories however, it is necessary to engage experts to avoid compromising other crucial elements, such as ventilation and spacing between beds.

Finally, as stakeholders brainstorm on a back-to-school’ strategy, they should consult widely to come up with a plan that works best.

Mr Kavu believes that some in the education sector have not engaged professionals, especially in the construction industry as they should. As a result, substandard schools keep cropping up, making it difficult to deal with complex matters such as the pandemic. Today, we may be dealing with hygiene, design and safety issues, but we never know what tomorrow brings.

Mr Kariuki, the civil engineer, says it’s time schools took a futuristic approach to their designs and learning models.

“The laptop project was an excellent idea, if only it was executed,” he says.

School entrances and exits, which have been identified as potential hotspots, could use technology too. Imagine a scenario where the bell has rung and learners dash out of the classroom to go home. Social distancing may go out the window, as they all rush toward the exit. 

Mr Kariuki suggests installing turnstiles at the entry and exit points to manage populations. Turnstiles limit the number of persons passing through a barrier to one.

For colleges and universities that check IDs and bags at the entrance, there is a heightened risk as security guards touch multiple bags and IDs. He, therefore, recommends automated security systems for such institutions.

In a nutshell, the pandemic should be a game changer for the education sector. It’s clear that we need better oversight, equity and futuristic thinking if we are to improve the outlook of our schools.

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