In all likelihood and depending on the Covid-19 infection trajectory, schools will reopen in September under a new academic calendar to be made public in late July or August.
While curriculum experts will quickly and easily draw up a new school calendar complete with guidelines on how to make up for the five months lost in the shut-down, the reality in our learning institutions makes the promise of a September reopening utterly unrealistic and pyrrhic.
The government last month appointed a task force to look into how schools can be reopened after they were shut on March 15 to protect learners from Covid-19, which has so far infected 2,989 Kenyans and killed 88.
The infection rate has accelerated with increased testing, prompting the government to completely phase out the second term, which was to begin on May 4 and push it to September when the third term ought to begin.
The caution by the government is prudent and is driven by the fear that schools could easily be incubation centres to set off a new wave of infections that could overwhelm medical facilities across the country and create insurmountable panic.
Yet even with a September reopening, unless the disease shows consistent deceleration, the conditions in schools present the ideal environment for a new surge of infections.
“We really have to have a consistent downward trend of the infection rate for a period of two to three weeks to ensure we are overcoming the virus. We need to be almost 100 per cent confident the curve is flattening before we can reopen social places like schools,” says an epidemiologist in the Health ministry who cannot be named because he is not authorised to share his views on the virus with the public.
One of the biggest challenges the government will have to grapple with, if the schools are to reopen, is ensuring all schools have running water.
One of the basic hygiene measures spelt out by the World Health Organization to prevent infection is frequent washing of hands with clean water and a detergent. In the absence of clean water and soap, Unicef recommends “sufficient” alcohol-based rub at all school entrances.
The UN classified Kenya as a water-scarce country with a low natural replenishment rate, saying, about 41 per cent of Kenyans depend on ponds, shallow wells and rivers.
According to Water.org, only nine out of 55 public water service providers in Kenya have continuous supply. This means that a majority of public schools in urban and rural areas do not have clean water. Worst hit are those in informal settlements.
Between now and September, the government cannot provide clean water to these institutions, so it would have to put in place a consistent and sufficient supply of hand sanitisers.
With about 31,000 primary schools with eight million pupils and 8,000 secondary schools with more than seven million learners, about 600,000 in universities and another 200,000 in technical and vocational institutions, that would be an uphill task.
In addition, there are about 11,000 private schools holding about 2.4 million learners, about 155,000 teachers and 120,000 non-teaching staff.
In the same vein, the government would have to put in place a steady supply of face masks for everyone in learning institutions, preferably washable ones that can be used and reused for extended periods. It would also have to test all these individuals regularly for Covid-19.
Severe teacher shortage
The basic education sector is grappling with a severe teacher shortage of about 130,000. Secondary schools have a shortfall of about 100,000, while about 35,000 are needed for the primary section. This means that the teacher to learner ratio is 1:60 in some schools instead of around 1:40.
The campaign to achieve 100 per cent transition from primary to secondary schools has resulted in more learners joining high schools without expanding learning to matched enrolment.
Classes, which hold an average of 55 pupils would have to be split into two to create the necessary distancing recommended to stop the spread of the virus.
The same would apply for don dormitories, laboratories and libraries. With increased smaller classes, coupled with teacher shortages, ensuring social distancing would be a tall order.
Add to their shortage, many teachers are above 55 and, therefore, in the vulnerable bracket for the virus. The over-58-year-olds should, according to government guidelines for public service workers, work from home, making for an even more desperate situation.
Granted, the Teachers Service Commission has been allocated 266 billion to spend in this year’s budget to be read tomorrow, a huge leap from the Sh241.1 billion given last year. It will spend Sh257.97 billion in teacher resource management that will include hiring 5,000 additional secondary school teachers and 4,920 for primary.
While this replenishment is hugely welcome, it will merely replace those teachers likely to retire this year, hence way below the ideal 40:1 learner-to-teacher ratio.
These teacher shortages will also put paid to plans of a possibility of introducing a learning programme based on shifts because it will mean a heavier work load for a thin and poorly motivated teaching force.
Still a gradual reopening of the schools, giving priority to national examination candidates would be discriminatory to the rest of the student population because regardless of the tests, all learners are equally important and they have as much a right to education as the candidates.
Having candidates report back to school to sit their examination will also distort the class progression cycle because Standard Eight learners cannot move to Form One unless those in Form One have moved to Form Two. The same situation would obtain for Form Fours moving to higher education.
As the country awaits a new calendar for schools, the harsh reality on the ground might mean that what it will instead get is a timetable for ensuring all necessary protocols are in place for possible reopening next year depending on the Covid-19 curve.