School re-opening: How good is the good news?

Opinion piece by Agatha Kimani

In response to covid-19 all Kenyan learning institutions were on March 14, 2020 shut down. This presidential directive affected over 15 million primary and secondary school learners. Now the good news is that the school re-opening date has been determined – It is October 12, 2020! Many children are excited. But just how good is the good news?

It is one thing to re-open schools and another for learners to resume classes. The government will struggle to assure parents of learners’ safety in institutions -some of which were previously used as quarantine and/or isolation facilities.  One way to work around this is for the government to involves members of school boards of management in fumigating the schools, putting up the additional infrastructure for covid-19 protocols and communicating with clarity about these efforts. Clarity is essential.

Prior to schools re-opening, schools should walk parents through a typical learning day, demonstrate how protocols will be observed and how emergencies will be detected and handled.

Schools must also send timely and accurate communication to parents on reporting protocols and any subsequent developments. Oftentimes, schools communicate through word of mouth. However, they should consider strengthening this with a bulk SMS system because written communication is more reliable. Schools must now more than ever before involve parents in learning.   

Even if this is done and learners resume classes, there is need for planning around a wide range of covid-19 related learning challenges. For RELI two challenges have immediate urgency; the loss of learning milestones and ensuring learner retention.

During covid-19 season, most learners barely had access to remote learning due to lack of digital devices, lack of connectivity and high parent-illiteracy levels. Usawa 2020 report on remote-learning among school-going Children in Kenya during the Covid-19 Crisis revealed that only 37% and 27% of learners could access learning materials either from their parents or from their schools through WhatsApp respectively. Zizi Afrique’s report on learning in arid areas in Kenya found that in Turkana and Tana River counties only 30% of learners had some form of formal learning from home, with 6% and 36% accessing learning on TV and radio respectively. Moreover, 2 in every 10 parents were not aware that their children were expected to continue learning remotely from home.

These factors have combined to result in loss of learning milestones where learners have lost learning acquired earlier in the year. Moreover the inequality gap has further widened the gap for the children most left behind. To mitigate this, teachers need to use ‘Accelerated learning modules’ for differentiated learning. RELI could support re-tooling/coaching on this skill and sustain the skill through team-teaching. We could also work with development partners to zero-rate online lessons thus enhance access as evident with Dignitas’ work among the urban poor.

RELI second concern on learner retention acknowledges that multiple factors, ranging from parents withdrawing children from schools which were used as quarantine/ isolation centres to teenage pregnancy, early marriages, crime, boys’ initiation ceremonies, and migration and displacements occasioned by floods and locusts have resulted in an increase in the number of learners at risk of permanently dropping out of school learners. RELI should initiate/ actively engage existing re-enrolment, mentorship and retention campaigns. For the resources needed, RELI should consider collective resource mobilization from institutions actively supporting education such as the World Bank and Global Partnership for Education (GPE). The latter committed US$250 million to help developing countries mitigate both the immediate and long-term covid-19 disruptions to education.

In addressing these immediate challenges in the areas in which we work, RELI is sure to better the good news and make a lasting impact on the future of Education.

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