- They say education is the backbone of any society…that with formidable education system comes economic success.
- Yet as the world is battling COVID-19 pandemic, this important aspect was ignored, all efforts directed elsewhere.
In a remote village in Samburu North of Samburu County, the silence is pierced by songs, plays and chuckles of children of Suyan Early Childhood Development Education (ECDE) Centre.
The children are happy to be in school, as it is here where they can meet with their friends, learn, play and have a meal – sometimes, the only meal they will have in a day.
Months before they resumed their learning, before schools were closed indefinitely after the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the country in March 2020, their teacher- Tiabaldo Emase showed up at school religiously and in time.
Emase happens to be the only teacher handling classes from ECDE up to Grade 5. The pupils were just about to conclude the first term but everything was stopped abruptly and indefinitely. The children would meet again months later on 4th January 2021, when schools were re-opened by the government.
Emase says, “my pupils were away for a long time. When we resumed learning, they had forgotten almost everything we covered in the 1st term of 2020. I had to refresh their minds by repeating everything we had covered.’’
The closure of schools for the better part of 2020 had an impact on the enrolment of children. Emase says before the pandemic, the ECDE pupils were about 78 but now the number has dropped to between 26 and 30. And, there are hurdles that Emase has to jump over or dodge daily before arriving at school.
“Insecurity is a big problem here. I stay far from this place. I always risk walking to school because there is an imminent danger of meeting with bandits along the way. The bandits are bad, they kill and steal. I only rely on faith in God to arrive to school and back home safely.’’ Emase says.
At Suyan ECDE, the children are lucky. They receive a meal a day courtesy of the Samburu County Government. One of their parents has been hired to cook the food. Their teacher says some of the children come to school on empty stomachs but they will leave with what can turn out to be the only meal they will have for the day.
The supply of food in the school feeding programme, however, is not constant. Emase says children come to school when they know they will get good. Some stay away when there is no food in school.
Hundreds of miles away from Samburu County, our reporter Sharon Barang’a is at Kona Maziwa ECDE in Kajiado County. The narrative in Kajiado is similar to that of Samburu and different at the same time.
The grounds Kona Maziwa children are using as school have been given to them by Hope Restoration Church. If the church hadn’t provided space for the ECDE, the pupils would have been forced to walk for more than 10KM to the nearest school.
Temperatures here can rise up to 40 degrees Celsius making an Acacia tree the children use as a class very valuable. With no desks, the children use their laps when it is time to write. Their teacher Nickson Mapenai says, “we have just been helped with this space, we do not have books – the ones we are using, we borrowed from nearby feeder schools.’’
Like Emase in Suyan ECDE, Mapenai also noticed that his pupils were not up to par from where they had left after schools were closed in 2020. Mapenai says, “When we were told that schools have been closed indefinitely, our children went into herding. When we resumed learning early this year, they had forgotten almost everything we had covered. I had to undertake the daunting task of repeating everything I had taught them. Some of my pupils have not reported to school since the year began.’’
For the better part of 2020 when children were at home, Mapenai tried to reach out to some parents to allow him to teach their children.
“The parents were not in a position to pay for remedial classes. At the time, their business, which was mainly the sale of goats, was heavily affected as a result of COVID-19. There are times where I would be contracted to teach a few pupils but a few days later, they are withdrawn from the class by their parents who said they did not have money to pay me,’’ Says Mapenai.
Unlike Suyan ECDE in Samburu County, the school feeding programme was stopped in Kajiado County. This has affected the concentration span of the children while in class. Mapenai says that when it gets to 11 am, the children become grumpy as a result of hunger, some of them begin to sleep and others start crying. This is because some of them left their homes having had nothing for breakfast.
The national chair of Kenya Union of Pre-primary Education Teachers (KUNNOPET) Lawrence Otunga says, “nutrition helps in the holistic growth of children. If a child lacks a balanced diet or enough food in a day, it reduces the concentration of that child in a classroom. The government should try and introduce feeding programs to all schools highly affected by the pandemic. This will ensure there is proper growth of children as well as increase enrolment in those schools.’’
Like Emase in Samburu, Mapenai attends to three different classes: The pre-primary 1 and 2 are taught under the Acacia tree while Grade 1 pupils remain inside the church.
From Kajiado County, we journey to Regis School in Kiambu County. The infrastructure in this learning institution is admirable. Here, learning shifted online almost immediately when schools were closed indefinitely in March 2020. The children in pre-primary 1 and 2 were engaged in learning throughout the period some of their counterparts were at home. For them, the wheel of education continued to spin.
Dr. Teresa Mwoma, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Early Childhood & Special Needs Education at Kenyatta University says, “when the government and all other agencies related to education started thinking on how they can support learning to continue, they quickly thought of secondary school and primary school. Pre-primary schools were left behind. Apart from that, remember a majority of learners do not have gadgets to enable them learn virtually.’’
She adds: ’’during the time schools were closed, the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development started TV programs for primary and secondary and later they had one lesson a week for pre-primary school children to learn but remember, majority of the parents and learners do not have gadgets to would enable them learn virtually in terms of TV, Radio, Computers or smartphones.’’
KUNNOPET’s Otunga says, “most early childhood learners have a short concentration span, if they stay at home for long without being taught they tend to forget about any other thing they were taught in the past.’’
But, all was not lost for children who couldn’t afford to participate in online learning. This is because when schools reopened, teachers went back to teach from what was already covered during the 1st term of 2020. However, Otunga says the early childhood sector has been hit hard by the pandemic.
“Children from vulnerable backgrounds have been highly affected. Some of their parents lost their jobs and as a result, some have dropped out of school especially for children who were in private institutions. Socialization of learners has also been affected, this is because they are not free to interact with one another because of social distancing.’’
There is also a group of children who lost a parent or guardian to COVID-19. This group is having a difficult time interacting with their peers.
“There is also fear and discrimination of learners from families who lost their parents to the pandemic. Most of the kids do not want to associate with them because of discrimination. They are referred to as – people of the virus loosely translated to Kiswahili as watu wa corona,” says Otunga.
The ripple effect of COVID-19 to the ECDE sector continues to be felt. Some of the ECDE teachers lost their jobs after schools that were heavily impacted shut down and were turned into shops or shopping centres.
As COVID-19 spread across the globe, focus shifted to fighting the pandemic that threatened the stability of even the most powerful economies. But, the future of those economies was ignored – the pre-school children.
A study conducted by Africa Early Childhood Network on children under 5 and COVID-19 termed the age group as a neglected population or what we named the forgotten future. In its recommendations, the Kenyan government has been advised to improve the physical caregiving environments as well as ensure more resources and devolved funds are invested in ECDE to address some of the fundamental issues facing young children and their families.
For now, learners at Suyan ECDE, Kona Maziwa and Regis school continue to learn despite the challenges some of them are exposed to.