Back To School With Covid-19: What Are The Next Steps?
It has now been almost two months since schools were officially closed by Presidential decree (15th March 2020), in order to combat the spread of the COVID – 19 Pandemic that had by then caused infection in 2 people in Kenya and was wreaking havoc worldwide. Since then, there have been several digital learning interventions put in place by most schools to ensure that the learning process continues albeit remotely.
These interventions have brought with them varying degrees of success/failure and have often been fraught with tears and tantrums (sometimes, the children also cry…) but for the most part, have changed our thinking on how digital learning will impact our lives both at work, at school and what going back to school with Covid will mean for parents and all stakeholders.
Concerned parties and in particular, parents have gone through varying degrees of frustration, inadequacy, dread, annoyance, and impatience. However, these trying times have also brought their share of smiles and outright laughter, even as parents also try to navigate their way through new online work schedules and the disappearance of the ‘office’ as a concept.
In the earlier weeks of school closure, we were inundated with hilarious memes and videos of parents trying to cope with this ‘new normal’, and it is interesting to see that most of these have abated following families and teachers finding and getting into a rhythm and adjusting to new and different methods of handling this issue.
Now, whether we like it or not, we will have to quickly learn and teach ourselves and our children new skills with which to navigate this time of uncertainty and learn to interact with others remotely. In other words, embracing the great unknown. As with all new technology, there are risks for the old and young alike and the ‘black hat’ hackers are having a field day taking advantage of the less tech-savvy in our midst.
Some have decided to write off this entire school year and some have even withdrawn their children from school to teach them at home (especially the younger ones) for the two or so terms to avoid paying school fees especially at a time when the economic forecast remains unclear for the foreseeable future. It has to be noted that there is no right or wrong answer for individual families at this point as safety is of paramount importance and that is not only to be respected but fiercely defended.
A return to schools is, however, an inevitability and on 6th June 2020, during the 8th Presidential address on the Coronavirus Pandemic, it was stated that there were stakeholder consultations being held jointly between the Ministry of Health and Education towards this end. They will then issue guidelines on a ‘gradual and progressive’ return to schools by the 3rd term or from 1st September 2020. In the interim, a new school calendar is to be issued by mid -August, which will see schools start to plan for the months ahead.
However, what does this mean for all the concerned parties? Interestingly this has become a real conversation driver in the past few weeks and as a result, a multitude of questions have arisen. It is the human condition that we are tactile and seeks physical contact with our immediate surroundings, so you can imagine a group of young, boisterous children arriving at school when it opens and running directly to hug their friends or a dearly missed teacher or member of staff.
It could mean the start of the second wave of infections, one which I’m sure the government wants to avoid. So in the face of all this, we need to have a delicate balance between the need for schools to re-open vis-à-vis the safety of the school environment for the teachers and students. Here is a list of basic points to ponder which in and of itself is inexhaustive but which allows us to start thinking more practically.
A. Social Distancing
- Do schools have the capacity to ensure sufficient social distancing in classrooms, bathrooms, and dining halls? If so, are there enough classes and teachers to meet the required guidelines? If not, how will these be enforced, by whom and at whose cost?
- What about Sports and PE? Most school sports require some form of contact, so will away matches and external sports fixtures and competitions be canceled or postponed? There is also emerging medical evidence that wearing a mask during any major physical activity is to be avoided, so does that mean that Sports is canceled?
- What about enforcement of social distancing rules for school staff (teachers, cleaning staff, and security personnel) as well students who use public transportation?
- Who will manage the safety of the day to day learning materials such as black/whiteboards, chalk, books, and writing paraphernalia?
- Who will enforce the correct wearing of masks especially during lunchtimes and playtimes? What if these are forgotten at home? Who can ensure that a sufficient number can be kept on-site for such incidents? Will teachers and students be able to have effective discourse in the classrooms with these on?
- Whose responsibility will it be to enforce frequent temperature checks? Are there sufficient trained personnel? How frequently should these temperature checks be done?
- If a pupil or member of staff presents with a high temperature in the course of the day and turns positive for the virus, all those they came into contact with and their contacts will have to be quarantined. Where and at whose cost? What if there are very young children involved?
- How quickly and often can actual COVID – 19 testing be done by the relevant authorities; weekly, bi-weekly? What about within boarding institutions or will these remain closed indefinitely?
- There is some basic medical cover for teachers in schools, but it is still unclear on whether this includes anything specific on COVID – 19, so many of the teachers especially those with pre-existing conditions such as diabetes or hypertension, question whether it is worth the risk going back to schools. Will they get any risk allowances?
- Children may also be asymptomatic carriers who may be living with others who have comorbidities or may be vulnerable due to age which presents another risk factor.
- Who is responsible if one gets sick while attending school? Should parents sign waivers of liability?
More importantly for already struggling parents is, how will all this impact on school fees? There is so much to consider, and this piece is not to evoke feelings of doom and gloom, but rather to prepare ourselves mentally for what will doubtlessly be challenging times ahead.
We can choose to despair or we can choose to embrace and adapt to the requisite changes that will form the basis for our new ‘normal.’ History has shown us repeatedly that with some practicality and a whole lot of positivity we will emerge stronger and happier for it!
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