By Paul Ochieng

As Kenya grapples with pressure to reopen schools, questions are being asked whether it made the right decision to keep children out of schools for seven months due to the corona virus pandemic.

Kenya, just like many African countries were overwhelmed by the Covid-19 surge at the beginning of the year opted for the safety of school children by keeping them at home which has resulted to almost the loss of one full academic calendar.

Whereas health experts argue that it was the right decision to close schools and learning institutions until the Covid-19 curve is flattened, education experts have believed that the break is too long and that containment measures should have been put in place to facilitate smooth learning.

Amid two competing rights, the Right to Health and the Right to Education, the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) on August 20 warned that prolonged school closures aimed at keeping students safe from COVID-19 are harming them in more ways.

“The impact of extended education disruption is significant. It has resulted to poor nutrition, stress, increased exposure to violence and exploitation, childhood pregnancies, and overall challenges in the mental development of children due to reduced interaction related to school closures,” said WHO.

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WHO and UNICEF urged African countries to promote the safe reopening of schools after a survey of 39 countries which found that schools are fully open in only six countries, closed in 14 countries and partially open in 19 others.

Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa said the governments must not be blind-sided by the efforts to contain COVID-19 and end up with a lost generation.

“Just as countries are opening businesses safely, we can reopen schools. This decision must be guided by a thorough risk analysis to ensure the safety of children, teachers and parents and with key measures like physical distancing put in place,” said Dr Moeti.

According to UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa Mohamed Malick, the long-term impact of extending the school shutdown risks ever greater harm to children, their future and their communities.

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Malick added that if African governments could balance the harm being caused to children locked out of schools due to Covid-19 then the right thing would be to allow them back to classrooms.

To hasten the back-to-school initiative, WHO, UNICEF and the International Federation of Red Cross have issued guidance on COVID-19 prevention and control in schools that includes physical distancing measures such as staggering the beginning and end of the school day.

They have also recommended cancelling school events that create crowding, spacing desks, providing handwashing facilities, wearing masks, discouraging unnecessary touching and ensuring that sick students and teachers stay at home.

It is the guidelines Kenya’s Ministry of Education is exploring while coming up with two proposals to fast-track re-opening of schools.

The country’s education experts have suggested a phased reopening of schools which if adopted will see candidates who were scheduled to complete their primary and secondary education allowed back to class next month.

The senior students would be used as a test to evaluate the level of preparedness to contain any upsurge of the corona virus in schools before allowing other junior learners to join them three weeks later.

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In the second approach, the experts are prosing to have all learners from junior classes to upper classes reopen schools on the same day after which their health issues will be continuously monitored to ensure the pandemic does not hit the schools.

These are the modalities education stakeholders in Kenya will be attempting to use as a way forward to break the dilemma of whether or not to reopen schools in the face of Covid-19 pandemic.

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