As the novel coronavirus continues to spread throughout the world, societies are adapting to stringent cleaning practices, social distancing measures, and, where possible, distance working and learning. In Canada, most schools across the country closed their physical doors in March, leaving students to finish out their remaining school terms online. Now, many schools are reopening with new safety protocols in place. For some students, there is also the option of distance learning and homeschooling. No school reopening plan is perfect, but arrangements and accommodations are being made across the country to try and safely resume classes under a “new normal” of mandatory facemasks, class pods and staggered class times.
The situation in Kenya
When Kenyan schools closed their doors in March, after the first cases of COVID-19 were detected in the country, there were no alternative learning options. The committee in charge of overseeing schools reopening in Kenya has recommended that schools do not open until January 2021, and that’s only if the COVID-19 curve has flattened in the region. Kenya does not have the infrastructure to handle a health crisis with the size and scope of the current pandemic. Social distancing is the best way to stop the spread of COVID-19 before it can overwhelm their health system. Kenya is also facing a shortage of resources – such as masks, hand sanitizers, and soap – to facilitate a safe return to school. According to the John’s Hopkins Coronavirus Research Centre, at the time of writing Kenya has 13,873 active COVID-19 cases.
Inaccessible remote learning
In the meantime, the government has introduced virtual learning sessions online, on television and on the radio, but most students cannot access these lessons as they do not have electronics or reliable internet access at home. Even for those students who can access them, the lessons are lecture-style, and a teacher is not present to help students understand a concept. The national exams Kenyan students need to take to advance to the next grade will not be held this year, which means students will need to begin their school year over again and graduate a year later. (In Kenya, the school year begins in January, so most students were only in school for two months of the school year).
Digital opportunities – and inequalities
There are many benefits that come with distance working and learning. Less time is spent commuting, there are positive environmental impacts and a healthier work-life balance. In health, including eye health, there are significant opportunities for tele-health delivery, which has the potential to bring specialized health care to rural and remote regions. But there are limitations. For all the benefits of migrating operations online, there is a significant risk of online and remote working and learning exacerbating existing inequalities.
Impacts on health and well-being
Not only are schools an important resource for academic learning, they are also a source of important health education, too. Nutrition, eye health and sexual and reproductive health were all taught in classrooms or after school groups. In the absence of this education and supervision, teenage pregnancies have significantly increased in Kenya in recent months.
Although COVID-19 continues to dominate global headlines, as the pandemic stretches on the economic, mental and physical side effects of the pandemic are becoming increasingly apparent. With schools closed, it means that Operation Eyesight is unable to conduct school screenings and refer children with visual impairment to the care they need. It’s almost an entire year of education lost, as well as another year for students to potentially live with an avoidable eye health issue.