OPINION: CS Magoha should not ignore social role of schools

OPINION: CS Magoha should not ignore social role of schools

By Calvince Orwa

The recent closure of schools for the second time, in the wake of the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, should prompt us to think deeply about the role of learning institutions in the life of a child.

COVID-19 has made us narrow down our focus on schools as just one more social gathering that needed dismantling in order to prevent the spread of the virus.

However, in doing so, the Ministry of Education failed to consider alternatives that would still serve the function of schools while addressing the effects of the pandemic.

Schools offer interconnected formal and informal services to the adolescent learners. These services focus not only on academic achievement but on social, emotional, psychological, and physical health and well-being.

By providing physical protection and oversight, daily routines and stability as well as services for health, nutrition, sanitation and other specialized needs, schools both sustain and safeguard adolescent learners.

With the rapid closure of schools across the country in response to the third wave of COVID-19 pandemic, adolescent girls have lost an important space that offered them stability, even as the environment around them grew ever more uncertain.

The economic shocks caused by COVID-19 have had devastating consequences by compounding the poverty and food insecurity many families were already facing, including those in context enduring pre-existing challenges.

Removed social structures

The mental health of adolescents has deteriorated as they have been confined to their homes and a significant increase in sexual gender-based violence and other threats that specifically target young people.

Drawing from experience on previous infectious disease outbreaks and the current COVID-19 pandemic, the school closures could threaten the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 4 and the commitment of the African Union’s Agenda 2063 to eliminate gender disparities at all levels, including in education.

Gender inequity in education is a challenge across Kenya and the world over. School closure due to COVID-19 has removed social structures that would normally prevent high teenage pregnancy, early marriages, and FGM, phenomena that often lead to school dropout thus increasing gender disparities in education.

Evidence suggests that the online learning approach, adopted by many institutions of learning including colleges and universities in Kenya to reduce the impact of school closures, might increase gender gaps in education.

A study by Plan International, about online learning during the first wave of Covid-19 crisis in Kenya, found that only 15% of surveyed girls mentioned participating in home study, compared to 40% of boys.

This could be a result of girls having less access to technology than boys. Boys are one and a half times more likely to own a smart phone compared to girls (Girl Effect and Vodafone Foundation, 2020), and women are 33% less likely to use the internet than men (Malala Fund, 2020).

It could also indicate that girls were unable to participate in online learning due to taking on domestic chores, family care and income generating activities to support the family (Malala Fund, 2020).

Plan for future closures in emergency situations

Beyond girls falling behind in their education and experiencing higher dropout rates, school closures can lead to negative effects that go beyond the direct loss of education. Being out of school significantly reduces girls’ social network, their interaction and support from peers and staff, access to SRH and to a safe space (Plan International, 2020a).

As a result, girls become more vulnerable and exposed to sexual violence and exploitation, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), forced marriage and early pregnancies (Equity Now, 2020).

In light of these inevitable consequences of school closures due to the pandemic, the government needs to prioritize the identification of the most marginalized adolescent girls in each context, then address the systemic barriers that prevent their engagement with education and access to protective services.

— Citizen TV Kenya (@citizentvkenya) April 21, 2020

The Ministry of Education should avail more equitable remote learning by strengthening education systems, reviewing existing materials and media and developing new materials that are appropriate, learner centered and useful for at-home learning.

Education CS George Magoha should also ensure that scholastic materials and distance learning modalities feature inclusive options for adolescents’ girls with a variety of disabilities. He should also address a predictable financing alternative for education and adolescent girl’s protection, including humanitarian and development aid.

Finally, instead of simply sitting out the pandemic, the Education Ministry should engage in ongoing planning and preparedness for future school closures in emergency situations, including improving water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) facilities, improving resiliency and readiness to shift to distance modalities.

As the pandemic becomes a semi-permanent fixture in at least the near future, we will continue to see increased child and adolescent protection risks and harms experienced by adolescent girls. Simply sitting and waiting to resume normalcy will only hurt the girl child and entrench already existing inequalities.

Calvince Orwa is a youth advocate at the Network for Adolescent and Youth of Africa (NAYA Kenya)

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