Uncertainties in Education for Vulnerable Children during the Covid-19 Crisis
The reach of the Covid-19 pandemic has been felt in many facets of life. One of the sectors that has been immensely hurt by the pandemic is the education sector. On 15th March 2020, President Uhuru Kenyatta made an official statement announcing that two positive cases had been confirmed in Kenya. Consequently, he declared a raft of measures to mitigate the spread of the virus, among which was the closure of learning institutions. Three months down the line, and a total of 18 million students in Kenya have ben affected by the closure of schools.
Impact of closure on vulnerable children
While the disruptions of the closure of learning institutions have touched many, they have certainly been more far reaching for children from poor, marginalized and vulnerable households. With most living on less than a dollar a day and lacking basic services such as running water and electricity, schools have generally been a safe haven to such children. They not only provide a safe and conducive learning environment, but also finance school-related expenditures such as free meals, learning materials and school kits, like sanitary pads for girls. For children who relied heavily on their going to school for basic needs, learning takes a back seat, with one of the most pressing issues being hunger.
Moreover, with the increase in job losses due to lay-offs and business closures, many parents have lost their sources of livelihoods. This in turn is likely to exacerbate the rates of child labour, with children being forced to work for menial gains. Confinement in homes also increases the risk of the incidences of domestic violence, sexual exploitation (for women and girls, especially), child pregnancies, early marriages and as a consequence more children are likely to drop out of school.
A child’s right to education
Article 53 (1) (b) of the Constitution of Kenya (2010) guarantees every child the right to free and compulsory basic education. The Government of Kenya, to ensure the continuation of education, adopted remote teaching where online education is delivered through radios, televisions and internet. Children from poor, marginalized and vulnerable households may not have access to these mediums of learning, or even the electricity to access them. Further, since home-based learning largely depends on parental supervision, the low ICT literacy levels and other competing priorities contribute to delaying their learning and so widening the inequality gap.
To support such children, and in furtherance of SDG four: to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all, UNICEF has collaborated with the government to provide learning media such as radios, TV and internet lessons. It also intends to distribute 27,500 solar powered radios to children in areas without radios and distribute 18,350 textbooks to students in refugee camps.
Litany of problems
It is undoubtedly important to keep children engaged during this pandemic and to ensure the least disruption to their education possible, but these efforts prove nil if the litany of problems facing vulnerable children are not addressed first. Prof Magoha (Education CS), acknowledging this fact, directed that the syllabus should start right where it stopped before the closure of schools, so that when schools reopen those who could not access e-learning will have a chance to catch up.
For those especially waiting to do their examinations, the interruption of learning has led to heightened levels of stress and anxiety. Picture that – worrying about national examinations, against the backdrop of a worldwide pandemic accompanied by a number of ‘shadow pandemics’ – hunger, poverty, violence and exploitation, just to mention a few. It cannot be easy. Yet there are still those lobbying for a partial re-opening of schools for candidates to sit their examinations. Such a decision completely disregards the children from poor and marginalized families, and essentially places more importance on the national examinations than the mental and emotional well-being of the children.
To this KNUT Secretary General William Sossion said:
“We’ve heard of people talking about Form Four and Class Eight reopening. These are human beings; the world will not come to an end. Children can repeat a class, better save lives first. Even if the exams are pushed to November 2021, if we can evade death, let’s do so. The world will not come to an end if we suspend certain matters… Nobody in this country should gamble with the lives of learners and teachers…. KCPE and KCSE are not a ticket to heaven”.
I must say I agree 100 percent with this. So what if the examinations are pushed by a couple of months, a year even? Aside from the health risks that opening schools would cause in the wake of a pandemic school closures will have heightened the inequalities for marginalized learners. Candidates from poor households have more pressing issues that need more immediate responses.
So perhaps instead of worrying them with possibilities of examinations they are undoubtedly not ready for, and insisting on online education, securing them their basic needs such as food and water should take precedence over learning. Numerous donation links have been put up to try and cushion marginalized families during this pandemic, which is a good start. Efforts should also be taken to ensure that girls get the GBV protection services they need despite mobility restrictions and curfews. To this end, UNICEF is calling for child protection workers to be classified as essential services to ensure proper responses to gender-based violence and violence against children even after curfew. Only when these ‘shadow pandemics’ are addressed can the conversation about online learning and national examinations be more meaningful, while schools remain closed.
The article was written by Anita Wambui, fourth-year Strathmore Law School student.
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