Kenya: Fear of Covid-19 Explosion As Congested Schools Enrol More Pupils

An official from the Nairobi Health Department disinfects a street (file photo).
7 January 2021

Parents, head teachers and unions have expressed fears of a possible Covid-19 explosion in boarding schools after the institutions reopened with little or no infrastructural capacity to protect learners from infections.

Boarding schools are melting pots where thousands of learners from all over the country converged this week, raising anxiety over possible cross-county transmission of the virus. Some schools have enrolled well over 2,000 learners.

The schools fall short of the Ministry of Education guidelines on health and safety, with the most glaring shortcoming being social distancing in the dormitories.

"Going by what has been reported in schools by the teachers, parents and the media, the learning institutions are potential Covid-19 incubation centres," Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut) Secretary-General Wilson Sossion said.

"The government should have ensured that, like Rwanda, enough additional schools, classrooms and dormitories are constructed ahead of reopening," he said.

Social distancing impossible

Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha acknowledged it is impossible to achieve social distancing in schools but dismissed the concerns about boarding schools, saying with proper wearing of masks and high levels of hygiene, the learners will be safe.

"We'll do everything possible to ensure the protocols are observed and the children are masked," he said while addressing the media in Nairobi.

Kenya Union of Post Primary Education Teachers Secretary-General Akelo Misori said while challenges abound, learning should be allowed to proceed.

"No school has increased spaces but we can't cry foul all the time. We'll manage with what we have. This is not the time to bring obstacles to learning," he said, adding that if the other health protocols are adhered to, the virus will be contained.

However, school heads have decried strained infrastructure in the schools following an overwhelming enrolment occasioned by the government's 100 per cent transition policy.

"Our infrastructural capacity is stretched and may not accommodate the overwhelming number of students we have. We are seeking for alternatives that may include converting classrooms into dormitories and using tents to accommodate more learners," Mr Billy Ogolla, the Migori Boys High School head told the Nation.

Lessons in shifts

At Masara Mixed Secondary School, the principal, Mr Daniel Aloka, said the teachers were contemplating conducting lessons in shifts.

"The challenge is basically finances. As much as we are trying to create social distance, we may still suffer serious infrastructural inadequacy," Mr Aloka added.

Ms Irene Chelangat, a parent in Kericho, said she had withdrawn her son from a boarding secondary school and enrolled him in a day school closer home.

"With the prevailing chaos, there is no way I am going to expose my child to the risk of contracting Covid-19 in a congested boarding facility," she said.

Another parent from Nairobi said private-school dormitories were in the same condition they were before schools were closed.

"I brought my daughter today and it's true they are a bit congested. Are there plans to decongest the cubicles to ensure social distancing?" she posed.

In Nairobi, Lenana School Principal William Kemei said they will focus on wearing of masks, washing hands and monitoring students' temperature as it is impossible to maintain social distance in the dormitories. He added that the school has issued each student with two reusable face masks.

Kakamega High School Principal Gerald Orina agreed that social distancing is not attainable.

"Even though we have set beds in the dormitories at one metre apart, it is a challenge to fully enforce the social-distancing requirement in the dormitories and dining halls," he said.

At Mabole Boys Secondary School in Butere Sub-County, the school principal, Mr Benson Ogada, said social distancing is not possible.

Dorms, halls congested

"Our classes, dormitories and dining halls are congested like they were before Covid-19. We can do nothing about social distancing. We are majorly focusing on use of face masks and hand washing among our students," said Mr Ogada.

Town View Academy Primary School, a private school in West Pokot, was forced to do away with the boarding section for Grades 4, 5 and 6 pupils because of lack of infrastructure.

The school director, Ms Rebecca Lotuliatum, said it was impossible to adhere to the one-metre social-distancing requirement.

"We are receiving many learners who want to join the school but we are unable to admit most of them due to lack infrastructure in our school. We have remained with Standard Seven and Eight pupils as the only boarding group," she added.

Pregnant school girls

Nandi County Commissioner Geoffrey Omoding directed boarding schools to make special arrangements to accommodate pregnant school girls and ensure they do not drop out of school. In Bungoma County, the director of education, Mr Philip Chirchir, urged schools to introduce phases during lunch and tea breaks to attain social distancing.

In Nyeri County, some boarding schools with high enrolment have renovated old buildings in order to create more space for students.

"While we may not be able to do the 1.5-metre rule or separate the decker beds, we are trying to work with one metre and the space between the lower and the upper beds is roughly one metre," said one principal who sought anonymity for fear of reprisals.

"Saying that we can manage the social distancing in boarding schools is a fallacy but what we are doing is the basic minimum to keep these children safe," he added.

In Murang'a County, County Director of Education Anne Kiilu, while on an inspection tour of boarding secondary schools, said social distancing was and still remains the biggest challenge.

Speaking at Kiranga Boys in Kandara Sub-County, she said it was a tall order to enforce social distancing in all schools, saying "some of these things are best left to God who is the best overseer of our lives".

She said it is hard to implement the policy given the reality that dormitory capacity in the county needs more than 400 per cent expansion.

Temporary dormitories

Most sub-county directors of education reported measures such as converting classrooms, libraries, workshops as well as dining halls into temporary dormitories.

At Kwale High School, the administration is struggling to accommodate its more than 1,400 students.

"We have six more classrooms which are spacious and we are still looking at the possibility of having more classrooms. We plan to partition the dining hall to have more classrooms," Mr Mike Mutua, the principal, told the Nation by phone.

Kwale Kuppet branch secretary John Tuki said school heads were hard pressed to deal with congestion in schools.

"We must admit there are serious challenges the ministry is facing and it's upon the government to liaise with respective schools to address those challenges to ensure smooth learning in the schools," he said.

Many of the big schools in Makueni played down the accommodation crisis without elaborating on the measures they have taken to ensure proper spacing in the dormitories.

The most populated boarding schools in the county are Makueni Boys High School and Mukaa Boys High School.

By Vitalis Kimutai, Ian Byron, Shaban Makokha, George Odiwuor, Gerald Bwisa, Oscar Kakai, Barnabas Bii, Sammy Lutta, Tom Matoke, Stanley Kimuge, Evans Kipkura, Brian Ojamaa, Reginah Konogu, Mwangi Muiruri, Alex Njeru, Fadhili Fredrick and Winnie Atieno

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