All the 24 classrooms at Mlolongo Primary School in Machakos are full, yet only half of expected pupils have reported back.
As a pointer to the crisis facing schools that have to enforce social distance to curb the spread of Covid-19, the school, which is one of the most highly populated public schools in the county, is already stretched, yet less than half of Grade Four and Grade Eight pupils are back in school.
The teachers have expressed fears that the congestion and shortage of space might send the giant school into a crisis once the second phase of re-opening of schools commences.
Mlolongo Primary School has 1,457 pupils, and more than 300 in its pre-school section.
Speaking to the Nation, the teachers have complained about the unavailability of sitting space for the pupils. At the moment, the only available classrooms are occupied by Grade Four and Standard Eight examination candidates, said Ms Francisca Kitonga, the deputy head-teacher.
This comes even as the school has registered less than half of its candidates back in school. Only 46 per cent of the 257 Standard Eight pupils have reported back to school, while in Grade Four, only 47 per cent of the 160 pupils have turned up.
The Standard Eight pupils, said Ms Kitonga, now occupy eight classrooms, while the Grade Four pupils are in six classrooms, with each room housing 30 students. Before Covid-19, the Standard Eight pupils occupied four classrooms, with about 64 pupils each, while the Grade Four pupils occupied two classrooms, each with more than 80 pupils.
A source within the school, who spoke on condition of anonymity explained that due to the limited space, most of the classrooms have been accommodating up to more than 100 pupils each, with seven pupils sitting on one desk.
The school is currently using semi-permanent iron sheet structures for classrooms after the permanent school buildings that were built by the Kenya National Highways Authority (Kenha) were condemned as unfit for occupancy. The condemned expansive single-storey building that houses 23 classrooms and a staffroom has for more than three years remained fenced off. From a distance, the imposing block of classrooms cuts the appearance of a strong structure, but the huge cracks on its foundation and walls betray its weakness.
The teachers are now worried about the second phase of opening schools for lack of space to accommodate the remaining students. There are only three classrooms left, of which one is a Covid-19 isolation centre, while the other two are being used to store spare desks.
Talks on the construction of new classrooms have been ongoing. Last month, the Machakos County Education Department had a meeting with Mlolongo Sub-County education officials at the school. "Plans are under way with Kenha. The headteacher is attending a meeting today at Kenha offices. We cannot just sit and wait," said Ms Kitonga.
The school has adequate water supply and has installed six hand washing stations. The pupils have also been supplied with free face masks, liquid soap and sanitisers, which the school received through the Mlolongo chief's office. "I even have surplus face masks, which we are distributing through the pupils," said Ms Kitonga.
She is following up on the pupils who have not yet reported back to school. "A good number had travelled upcountry and the parents have been calling, promising that they will soon join school. I hope that the number of candidates will rise," explained Ms Kitonga.
The teachers are also happy to be back after such a long "holiday", she offered. The school has 31 teachers.
In March 2018, parents and pupils protested over the cracks on the walls of the now-condemned building. Kenha built the classrooms as it was expanding the Mombasa road. The school was closed indefinitely and Kenha embarked on the construction of temporary iron sheet classrooms.
For many years, the institution had remained the only public primary school serving the vast Mlolongo township, but it has been neglected, with poor infrastructure and congested classrooms due to high enrolment.
In late 2018, the Machakos County Government built Ngwata Primary School, in Mlolongo Phase Three, to ease congestion at Mlolongo Primary School, but given the high population growth, this has not been the case.