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Kenya: Back to school after COVID disruption

Silja Fröhlich | Andrew Wasike
January 6, 2021

Nine months ago, Kenya closed schools due to COVID-19. Now, students are returning, but the "new normal" makes studying more difficult than ever. Parents and teachers alike remain wary of how to deal with the pandemic.

A teacher wearing a mask observes students in class wearing masks too.
Many pupils in one class make social distancing in Kenyan schools nearly impossibleImage: Donwilson Odhiambo/ZUMA/picture alliance

Virginia Mwanzia has had to wait for months but this week, she finally returned to school.

The young girl from Kibera, a sprawling low-income areas in Kenya's capital Nairobi, is one of the millions of pupils lining up in front of her classroom on Monday.

Her school had been closed since March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Virginia's mother, Janet Mwanzia, is excited that her daughter is returning to lessons. Yet, she's wary of the risk that come with the reopening of the schools.

"The danger of many children is that they infect each other with COVID-19 and other diseases because they are crowded together," Mwanzia told DW.

Social distancing and sanitizing

Eating, playing, studying together — social distancing in many Kenyan schools is almost impossible.

But schools are taking precautions. Students have to wear masks, they get their temperature checked and they also need to wash and disinfect their hands.

Before entering the classroom, students need to line up to prevent congestion, as advised by Kenya's Ministry of Education and Health.

A child washing hands
Kenyan students need to wash their hands before attending classImage: Imago Images/M. Westermann

"It is our responsibility as teachers, administrators of schools, and even the pupils to ensure that we maintain the required hygiene standards," Julius Kimani, director of the Brucewood Education Center, told DW. "Students need to understand and practice social distancing so that we can beat the coronavirus pandemic."

Congested classrooms

One of the Brucewood students delighted to be back at school is Stella, who told DW she couldn't wait to see her friends again — even though students aren't allowed to play with each other under the new COVID-19 rules. 

Studying under the new circumstances is challenging though.

"I am uncomfortable wearing the mask ... and it's hot," Stella said. "They tell us not to remove the masks, but we remove it when we want to breathe."

Although schools are trying to spread students out, classrooms are still cramped. At Brucewood, three students share a desk that normally accommodates four students.

"We are congested inside the classroom," Stella said. "I had expected there to be more desks, and I expected we would be sitting one person at each desk."

With schools overflowing before the pandemic, social distancing is difficult, making crowded classrooms a huge risk for the spread of the coronavirus.

Schools are trying their best, converting libraries, dining halls, assembly grounds, and shady spots under trees into temporary classrooms.

Kenyan students walking on railway
Students in Kenya are returning to schools after months of closureImage: Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

"My child has a preexisting condition. My child is asthmatic," Caroline Kenga, a parent, told DW.

"The question is: what measures have been put in place to ensure that a child with a preexisting condition is covered?" Kenga asked.

"As a parent, I decided to take a step back this week and observe. I want to be sure that when I send my child to school, it is safe. That is my main concern, and that is why my child is still at home."

Charles Maina, another concerned parent, bought his children masks to wear at school but he, too, is aware of the difficulty.

"A child quickly forgets," Maina said. "You will find the child has removed it and put it in the pocket. The child will only remember to put it back when a teacher is present."

Hand-washing facilities required

The Kenyan government wants schools to ensure that students have adequate facilities to wash their hands whenever they need to. 

But only a few schools can strictly adhere to this guideline.

One such school is the Kibera Primary School for Girls, where 347 girls are expected in the next few days.

Divided into classes of roughly 20 pupils, students will be able to maintain a distance of one meter.

"The children are privileged, they're able to social distance, they're able to at least to get medical treatment, which is not the case for everybody in the slum," head teacher Robina Leah told DW.

Students wearing masks in class.
Wearing a mask while studying is not an easy task for many studentsImage: AFP/ Simon Wohlfahrt

'We need to breathe'

The Kibera school in run by Shofco, an international organization funded mainly by private American donors. It can provide the space, water, and masks to their pupils for free. Health officials trained teachers on how to stay safe in the school environment.

However, students still struggle with the new regulations.

"Wearing their masks is not easy for them, they have to wear their masks the whole day, so you find them lowering [the masks] down, they tell you: 'we need to breathe'," Leah said. 

While primary and high school students returned on Monday, universities and colleges were free to open.

Schools had already partially reopened in October, which led to a spike in COVID-19 cases.

Kenya has had almost 97,000 cases and according to Johns Hopkins University, nearly 1,700 people in Kenya have succumbed to the virus.

Most recently, Health Minister Mutahi Kagwe said the East African nation has been recording low positive numbers.

Schools reopen in Kenya

Mariel Müller and Thelma Mwadzaya contributed to this article.

DW - Silja Fröhlich
Silja Fröhlich is a German journalist and radio host.