Kenyan teenager Bella Achieng Otieno wants nothing more than to return to her classroom, growing anxious about her future with every passing day her school is closed because of COVID-19.
“I feel bad because corona has destroyed everything, and we cannot go to school. I pray so that the corona thing should be finished,” said the 15-year-old, who spends her time wandering the narrow alleys of Kibera, a slum in Nairobi.
Schools across Kenya closed as a precaution in March as the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe.
With cases soaring around the nation, the Kenyan government last month announced that classes would not resume until January next year, declaring the school year “lost.”
The decision upended life for millions of keen students like Otieno, who will be forced to repeat a year when she is to return school, and endure months of worry and boredom until then.
“It’s really frustrating for the girls,” said Rachel Esther, deputy director of the Kibera School for Girls, which usually teaches 330 girls between five and 15, including Otieno.
“They rarely stay at home for so long. I’m sure most of them don’t like it,” she said.
The school, founded by local non-governmental organization Shofco, tried to set homework via WhatsApp, but struggled with so many students lacking smartphones or unable to afford data.
Even before abandoning the school year, the government admitted in its emergency response plan that many parents with low literacy levels or who might not have a television or radio, would likely struggle with homeschooling and that this might deepen inequalities.
Esther fears that idle students would fall so far behind that they might not return.
Her students are also vulnerable in other ways. Experts have reported a rise in teenage pregnancies since Kenya’s lockdown began, with more girls pushed into transactional sex to survive while other teenagers have more sex as they stay home from school.
Poorer families, already suffering under the hardship of a months-long economic shutdown, are suddenly needing to scrape together more to feed their children, something usually provided by schools.
“It’s not easy because I have to pay the rent [and] feed [my children],” said Otieno’s mother Lilian Adhiembo, a widow who earns about 200 shillings (US$1.90) a day selling charcoal.
The pinch is also felt outside Kenya’s cities.
Joseph Ochola Nzwa sold four bulls to pay for his children’s education, a small fortune for the subsistence farmer in western Kenyan Kakamega County.
Even though the government has asked schools to refund fees or defer payments, Nzwa fears his investment is lost.
“I now fear my children may not finish their education,” he said.
The expectation that his older children would graduate, find work and help pay for their siblings’ tuition was also in tatters, he said.
The shutdown has heaped enormous pressure on Kenya’s private schools, which deprived of fees have struggled to keep staff and maintain their campuses.
About 2.3 million elementary-school students attend private institutions in Kenya — some funded by donors — taking the load off public schools which are underfunded and overcrowded, particularly in disadvantaged areas.
“The government alone cannot manage education for all its citizens,” Kenya Private Schools Association chairman Peter Ndoro said.
Some teachers in the private sector have not been paid for months and have sought out other work to survive. As of early this month, more than 120 private schools had announced they would not reopen in January.
“There’s a great possibility that if we do not get support from elsewhere, from the government, then very many other private schools might not be able to reopen. And this would throw our education system into jeopardy,” Ndoro said.
“I’m also worried that we might not be ready to open schools in Kenya by January,” Esther said.
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