After being closed for nine months, schools in Kenya reopened to start a new term and resume the school year that was disrupted in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. On Monday morning, 4th January 2021, we observed, streets swarmed with elated children wearing colorful uniforms marching to their schools.

Children were excited to return to school. Cate’s 12-year old daughter Charlene, studying in New Pumwani Primary school said staying at home had been tiresome and boring. “I missed learning, I missed my peers and teacher and I am happy to return back to schools,” she said.

After visiting a few schools, Kamukunji Community Empowerment Initiative (KCEI) a community based group working in Kamukunji sub county to enable youth to face their life challenges observed that school authorities had put up sanitizing machines, clean water, and made facemasks mandatory for entering into the premises.

Majority of boys and girls put on masks as they queued outside their school’s gates, waiting their turn as school officials took temperatures and sprayed hand sanitizers into their palms, but actual danger waited inside the school.

Parent’s Concerns

Parents accompanying their children were happy and anxious at the same time as they were worried about their safety as Kenya continues to report new COVID-19 infections.

“As a parent I am pleased that the children are back in school,” said Irene, a parent. “But at the same time we have a lot of fear because we really don’t know if other children have the virus or even if the teachers have the virus, or even if the support staff in school have the virus.”So we have that concern but we actually hope that our kids will be safe,” she said.

“The government has said our children should go back to school, but they are not safe as i see it,” said 30-year-old parent Saida, inquiring how social distancing will be practiced with about 70 students squeezed into each classroom. “There are no new classrooms built and no additional desks here,” she added. When the children sat down for class, they were shoulder to shoulder, three at a desk, as they were before the pandemic.

“Our school is overcrowded, that is my leading concern in bringing my children back,” the 30 year old said.  “We have suffered as parents, we have no money to buy books, pay bus fare, and meet costs of masks and sanitizers. We are not sure of the safety of our kids in schools. I am worried but I have to obey the government and take my child back to school,” she said.

Absenteeism in schools

In 2020, the World Health Organisation and UNICEF raised alarm about prolonged school closures due to COVID-19, stating that the closure may increase the risks of teenage pregnancy, poor nutrition, and permanent school dropouts for children in poorer countries.

While 15 million children were expected to return to school this week, KCEI observed that hundreds of children failed to report back to school in Pumwani slums, with girls forming the larger part of these figures.  While it has not yet been determined why learners did not go back to school, it could be due to girls becoming pregnant or getting married, so they are unable to go back to school. “School provided a safe haven for female students to focus on their studies and avoid the marriage route”, Kinyua, KCEI member said. “But due to Covid-19, the safety net was detached, leaving them exposed to child marriage,”

With diminishing household income, boredom and idleness, other learners resorted to child prostitution, drugs/alcohol, hawking, collecting scrap metals and plastics for sale, and begging during closure to supplement the household income, and this could also be a contributor to increased school absentee numbers during the school opening. 

As lots of people in the country are complaining about job losses and business closure due to pandemics and restrictions, many parents told KCEI that they are hesitant to send their children to school as a loss of income has impacted their ability to pay tuition and other levies, buy new school uniforms, books, face masks among others, . “We have not worked for a year. We were confined to our homes. How are we to support our children to go back to school,” said Jane, a parent at Kamukunji Secondary School.

“On top of the hand-washing points, schools need adequate supply of water, soap and hand sanitizers for teachers and students. We also have a shortage of classrooms and desks, which makes it hard to properly observe the one-metre rule among learners,” head teacher at Pumwani Primary school.

Overall, KCEI observed an average of 70% of students returned to school this week. While the number may seem high, there is fear among teachers and school staff that children will continue to drop out of school for various socioeconomic reasons throughout the year.

In order to achieve the United Nations’ SDG 4; Quality education for all, all children despite their socio economic status should have equal access to education, hence all stakeholder should work together to make this goal a reality.

Francis Kinyua, Kamukunji Community Empowerment Initiative