By Sharon Atieno
In a bid to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus and protect children, many countries across the globe opted for school closures. But as the status quo refuses to change, many countries in Africa are gearing up for reopening of schools.
Kenya is not an exception; the Minister of Education has been running up and down to ensure that schools are set to reopen in September.
However, in a virtual meeting held by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), some experts differ on this stand noting that there is still much to be considered before re-opening of schools.
Basing his argument on the recommendations given by the Kenya Medical Association for schools to reopen, Prof. Lukoye Atwoli, Associate professor of psychiatry, Moi University says that without knowing the actual distribution of the disease through broad testing to know which areas are worst and least affected it is difficult to make an informed decision.
He adds that the low testing rate, rise in deaths and infections, home-based care for asymptomatic patients and ongoing repatriation flights are a clear indication that the risk of community transmission has not diminished, thus putting children, school staff and other community members at risk of infection.
Prof. Atwoli further notes that the health system is incapable of handling a surge in cases. This is evidenced by counties struggling to establish facilities with 300 bed capacity each; little recruitment of health workers; reduced capacity for regular health services; uncertain commodity supply even for personal protective equipment (PPEs) and no vaccine or cure.
Noting that under normal circumstances, our public schools and informal sector private schools are not safe or healthy characterized by inadequate sanitation facilities, crowded classes, few teachers and child minders, inadequate open spaces and no safety and health protocols, Prof. Atwoli says COVID-19 places even higher demands on the school system which if not adhered to will lead to spread of the disease.
Similar sentiment is shared by Dr. Andrew Riechi, Director School of education, Koitalel Samoei University College, who notes that there is need to consider the capacity of the school to maintain safe school operations to mitigate risks such as social distancing; and water, sanitation and hygiene facilities practices.
“If children are not protected within the school environment, they will spread the disease back to the society,” decries Prof. Atwoli.
Dr. Riechi adds that the level of exposure between the school population and higher-risk groups such as the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions as the school population travels to and from school is an area of concern which is yet to be addressed.
Studies show that there is low mortality rate for younger people infected with the virus than in older people. One study shows that only 1 in 1000 people who are infected in the age group between 20-49 years would die unlike 1 out of 100 who are infected in the age group of 50-64 years and 6 out of 100 infected in the age group of 65 years and above.
He also notes that, additional sources of resources required for educational institutions have to be put in place as parents who are the main source of funding for schools are currently struggling with the economic challenges caused by the pandemic.
Furthermore, noting the correlation between schools and other sectors of the economy, Prof. Atwoli says that the rest of the economy has to be opened for schools to open.
With school closure impacting almost 1.4 billion students worldwide, only a handful of countries including Japan, Denmark, Taiwan, Norway, China, Israel and Vietnam have began to reopen schools after registering a decline in cases of COVID-19.
Mandatory temperature checks, holding classes outside, creation of several class entrances, and spacing desks and tables apart are some of the precautionary measures taken by these countries.