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COVID-19: Africa's education dilemma

July 10, 2020

Schools in parts of sub-Saharan Africa will remain closed because of a spike in coronavirus cases, further crippling already-fragile education systems on the continent. Those that have opened risk new viral infections.

Liberia Monrovia 2013 | Studenten & Prüfung
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Jallanzo

The coronavirus pandemic has severely affected the education sector in Africa Like, with mounting worries that it will take some time for many African countries to recover.

In Kenya, for example, where there were 8,250 confirmed cases and at least 165 deaths as of July 10, 2020, authorities announced that schools could only open in 2021. The academic year of 2019-2020 has been canceled — much to the disappointment of students, teachers, parents and education policymakers.

The decision left especially many high school finalists, who were looking forward to completing their high school studies, devastated.

Mixed feelings about school closures

At the same time, some final-year students are happy that the delay will give them more time to revise for their final exams.

"I am not happy because I wanted to finish school and embark on plans, and I'm sure many like me wanted to finish school this year," Catherine Njoki, a final-year student in Kenya, told DW.

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Students are concerned that a lack of PPE could jeopardize efforts to bring down COVID-19 cases
Students are concerned that a lack of PPE could jeopardize efforts to bring down COVID-19 casesImage: Imago Images/M. Westermann

Unlike Njoki, fellow finalist Tom Mwangi thinks that the dead year is a blessing in disguise since it will give him more time to prepare for his final exams next year.

"If you look at it from a positive perspective, I have more time to prepare for the exams … But also, there was that excitement that you were going to finish school and go to university," Mwangi said.

West Africa: schools resume

In west Africa, the reopening of schools is regarded as a positive development; however, students have concerns that the lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) could jeopardize individual efforts to bring down the number of COVID-19 cases.

In Ghana, students are reluctant to resume classes because of the coronavirus pandemic. Joel Sonne, a student currently doing his finals, told DW: "We have to go to school to write our exams to be admitted to the university. But with coronavirus around, it is terrifying."

"It makes me feel insecure because you never know who has the virus. From what I am hearing, some people might have the virus but don't show any symptoms. In case I go to school and contract the virus, I might unknowingly pass it on to my parents. So in a way, I am concerned about my safety and the safety of all," he explained.

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There are concerns that the coronavirus outbreak could overwhelm Ghana's health sector if the government does not take urgent action — such as guaranteeing that health workers have sufficient protective gear. And the virus affects all parts of society: On July 5, Ghana's President Nana Akufo-Addo had to go into self-isolation for 14 days on the advice of doctors after a person in his close circle tested positive for the coronavirus, according to a government statement.

The price-tag of education

Parents and guardians have different kinds of worries about the future of their children. In Kenya, where the academic year was effectively stopped, they are worried about tuition fees. Some are opting for homeschooling, which comes with its own challenges, such as a lack of educational materials and teaching skills.

"It is excruciating that a whole year has gone to waste, and some of us usually pay full-year school fees for our kids," parent Mary Wanjiku from Kenya told DW. "Will the school fees that I had spent in 2020 cover the 2021 calendar year?"

"I used to pay for internet learning through Zoom and WhatsApp for my children to at least continue their studies," Wanjiku said. "So, what about the expenses we have incurred to ensure our kids are learning at home?"

However, in Ghana, safety matters come first. Joshua Kortey told DW that he was not sure that his child would be safe at school because safety protocols are not observed: "The very first day we brought our children back two weeks ago, they told us that they would use the thermometer guns to test their temperature. They didn't do that. Nobody's temperature was taken," Kortey said.

For Stephen Amo, another parent in Ghana, there is nothing that can change his mind about not allowing his daughter to return to her school, where he says there are no safety measures taken: "I can't keep her there when I know there is an outbreak because if you have about six or seven students (with COVID-19), there is a possibility of them all getting it," Amo said.

Teachers' welfare as important

Teachers in Kenya meanwhile welcomed the government's decision to reopen schools in January 2021:

"The safety of teachers and learners in the workplace is also very critical and important," Wilson Sossion, the secretary-general of Kenya National Union of Teachers said. "We urge all Kenyans, parents, and stakeholders to support the decision, and we must accept to forfeit certain programs. We cannot have high expectations."

The decision to cancel the academic year also affected primary school leavers in Kenya. But the government defended its position regardless of the students' and parents' feelings:

"The 2020 primary and high school leaving examinations will be done at the end of 2021," Kenya's education secretary, George Magoha, announced earlier. "This year's school calendar will be considered lost due to COVID-19."

Meanwhile in Ghana, the government has defended its decision to have schools reopen instead of canceling the academic year. The country's information minister, Kojo Oppong-Nkrumah, said various precautions had been taken to avoid new infections.

"The president has tasked a sub-committee of the COVID-19 presidential task force to be set up to quickly address any challenges that may arise in the next eight weeks, while final year students are on campus," said Opong-Nkrumah.

Education analyst Amos Kaburu thinks that African governments should follow Kenya's decision to protect the lives of children — no matter what curriculum: "Governments have to be very realistic about the safety of the children. So any responsible government should do what the Kenyan government did, and that is to take a conservative approach," he said.

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