Youth Voices: COVID-19’s impact on basic education in Kenya
On 28 July 2022, INEE convened an informal discussion with Kenyan high school students to share their perspectives on how COVID-19 affected their education, including challenges, opportunities and other lessons learned. The students, all from Githunguri High School, talked about their personal educational experiences and also voiced concerns about the impact of the pandemic on their communities at large. The conversation was moderated by Loise Gichuhi and Esther Wamungu, moderators of the #kenya channel in the INEE Community of Practice.
Following the live, virtual discussion, the students shared some written reflections, which you can find below from William Khor, Violet Wanjiku, Sharon Bonareri, Dennis Ochieng Ojwang, Wangechi Elena Wanjiku, Joyce Wanjiku, Sylvia Muthoni, Tesloach Jacob, and Debra Mueni.
Due to the positive feedback from all participants, including the students themselves who appreciated having a space to raise their voices, INEE will plan more such discussions with young people and others directly affected by emergency interruptions to their education. Stay tuned to INEE’s communications channels and the Community of Practice for forthcoming details.
William Khor: I am the current school captain of Githunguri secondary school. I'm also an urban refugee from South Sudan. When COVID-19 struck, I was in form 2 and the country was put under lockdown, making all education institutions, most workplaces, churches and religious places close their doors. Even though the lockdown and curfews were for our safety, they came along with challenges.
- The first challenge we faced were financial problems. This really affected my family deeply, as my mother is the only breadwinner. We could only depend on the UN to provide us food.
- The second problem we faced was school dropout. Because of the lengthy stay at home, many students refused to come back to school once schools reopened. This is because they had engaged in menial and casual jobs which they found to be a better option to education. Some also got married and pregnant in the process. According to tradition, girls from the Nuer community (NUER) are also married off early. Education is reserved more for boys. So when COVID-19 broke out, many girls who were in school and of marriage age, were married off by their parents.
- Another problem was loneliness. Students who were the only children of their parents felt most affected. During the lockdown, they lacked social associations with other students and children, which was provided through their school. For example, one of my friends from Kakuma faced this challenge because he was the only child in his family. He was really depressed because he didn't have anyone to play or associate with. It affected his health to the point where he had to be taken to the hospital for treatment.
- The fourth challenge was separation from loved ones. Some families got separated due to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially the urban refugees in Ruiru. There were some students who were allowed by the government of Kenya to study in Nairobi, though their families were still in Kakuma.
Additionally, COVID-19 proved to be an eye-opener, with many opportunities.
- The first opportunity was the discovery of talents. For example, I personally was able to learn how to edit videos, take photos and also how to operate Google apps well. I was also able to earn some money from it. Also, a friend from Kakuma learned to compose songs and sing, which resulted in him occasionally being invited to events, performing and being paid.
- Another opportunity was an increase in family unity. Due to the lockdown, many families were forced to live together. This really strengthened their bond as a family and they got to know each other better. For example, my mother would organize a time for the family to worship, during which we would get together, sing, and worship. We also had more time to cook together.
- There was also more exposure to electronic devices. Many students didn't know how to operate these devices, but due to COVID they got the opportunity to learn how to operate and use them. They also helped their families learn. As for me, I was able to learn about online businesses and make money. Students also learned how to use Google classroom, WhatsApp, Kahoot, and Microsoft whiteboard to access learning resources, create content and share with peers. This had earlier been introduced to us by our teacher, Esther Wamungu. This gave me a chance to widen my knowledge about the outside world apart from learning.
In conclusion, COVID-19 brought more good than harm in my assessment.
Violet Wanjiku made a list of opportunities and challenges brought on by COVID-19:
- Bonds were created among family members.
- Crime decreased because of the lockdowns.
- Feeding patterns improved resulting in health improving since they were advised on what to eat.
- The regular wearing of masks and washing hands helped lower flu infections.
- Creation of job opportunities. For example, by selling masks, some could make money.
- Many people discovered new talents.
- Depression and stress increased among family members who lost loved ones due to COVID-19.
- Many teenagers accessed dangerous websites as a result of being idle at home and having access to gadgets and the internet.
- Many teenagers engaged themselves in the rampant abuse of substances and drugs.
- A lot of families became separated because of isolation and quarantine.
- Some students were forced to work to help their families.
Sharon Bonareri made a list of opportunities and challenges brought on by COVID-19:
- I was able to interact with other students from around the country, which helped my own learning.
- There were a lot of educational platforms I used to continue with my learning. The government also helped by providing free educational bundles. By doing so, many were able to cover the syllabus.
- When the first case was confirmed, we had to close schools with immediate effect. It was a good thing at first since the break helped to relax the mind a little. There was no guarantee for the future since nobody knew when exactly schools would reopen, so many teenagers decided to abuse drugs.
- Staying at home increased cases of early pregnancies since at school you were kept busy and had complete supervision from teachers. At home parents did not supervise children properly and sometimes were left alone in the house making them idle.
- Staying at home reduced the chances of us opening our books. This made us forget a lot of what the teacher had taught before. My grades started dropping which alarmed me, so I had to accept it and re-focus on school.
- The changes to the school calendar were also an issue. Teachers had to rush the syllabus which was hard especially to students of form four. What was supposed to be covered in four months was covered in two. Everything was condensed so that the target could be met.
Some lessons can be learnt from this. Tall oaks grow from little acorns i.e great things come from small beginnings. If it wasn't for my teacher's motivation to start from scratch, then I wouldn't be where I am. Everything happens for a reason. There was a reason for the pandemic. In conclusion, I think the pandemic wasn't bad after all that I managed to learn from it.
Dennis Ochieng Ojwang: Most governments around the world closed down schools temporarily in an attempt to control the spread of COVID-19, affecting millions of students all over the world, including us in Kenya. The pandemic, through these closures, resulted in greater inequalities in access to quality education. Therefore, I and other students urge our government to find a way of navigating through these challenges to ensure that in the face of a future pandemic students will be able to have uninterrupted learning.
In spite of the challenges, other positive opportunities came about. For example, students became more independent with their learning and teachers enhanced their own digital skills. Thanks to different learning platforms like telephone, television, and radio, many students were able to continue their education during the school closures, even though some families without technological gadgets were unable to adequately support their children's learning progress. We students were used to being supervised and guided in our school homework and projects, so the new learning methods during the closures increased our independence and gave us the chance to go through our past school work.
On the other hand, many teachers and students did not have the digital skills and knowledge for using new tools, so this created an opportunity for teachers to quickly learn new skills so they were able to operate effectively and teach their students the new skills too.
Wangechi Elena Wanjiku made a list of opportunities and challenges brought on by COVID-19:
- Online learning and access to digital platforms. Teachers taught students using different platforms like phones, laptops, computers, and Ipads on apps like WhatsApp, Kahoot, and Google classroom, which benefited many students. Revision has been easy since it became easier for teachers and students to be in contact with each other.
- Increased rate of hygiene practices. Before COVID-19, there was no regular washing of hands. Now there are washing areas all around to make sure we wash our hands as many times as possible. Wearing masks has led to a reduction in diseases like whooping cough, tuberculosis, etc.
- Improved bond between family members. COVID-19 brought parents and their children together because of the prolonged time staying at home and the closing of many physical spaces. This is especially true for families that used to have kids in boarding schools.
- Security increased. Because of curfews and lockdowns, people could not move around so easily, but this improved home security because people were at home more and guards and security officers were extra vigilant.
- New job opportunities. Many stores and services were closed because of a lack of customers and even getting materials from outside the country was difficult because of the lockdown. Online businesses became popular and most used by people and also provided opportunities for employment.
- School dropout. After the closing of schools, there were many challenges that students encountered at home. Many students decided to work and also refused to return back to school when others returned since they preferred to make money. Some students started using drugs and became addicted.
- Early pregnancies. Some girls involved themselves in relationships, and since they are not mature or empowered enough to resist sex or use protection, they became pregnant. After a short period, they had children to care for and could not return to school to continue with their education.
- Short academic years against a broad syllabus. After COVID-19, students went back to school and found that the year shortened but the syllabus remained the same. Teachers are working against time to complete the syllabus at the right time, and students lack the time to absorb new content and express themselves to teachers and ask questions when needed.
- Child labour. During the lockdowns, many students were put to work by their parents or guardians to help provide for their family. For example, girls may need sanitary towels and other essential feminine hygiene needs, which their parents are unable to provide, so some girls are forced to go and find jobs to be able to provide for themselves. Also, in many homes there is a lack of food and many parents, especially those who contracted COVID-19, could not support their children, so the children needed to work to provide for the family. In some cases, children became slaves to others in order to get food to survive.
Joyce Wanjiku: During the time they spent at home, students were able to interact fully with their family members. The love between them and their siblings grew stronger since they were mostly together and also they were able to understand each other and the problems each was facing.
Learning also continued even if it took place at home. The students were introduced to modern learning technology. Online learning platforms were used since teachers did not know when schools would reopen. So online learning had to be introduced to students to keep their feet on the ground and not forget their education. Online learning platforms, i.e. Zoom classes, were used which introduced variety to the students’ learning approaches. This method of learning is still being used now even though schools have reopened. Talents were also discovered and new skills were learnt. During this time, students had more free time to discover their skills, like braiding hair, among others.
Sylvia Muthoni made a list of opportunities and challenges brought on by COVID-19:
- Hygiene. Hygiene was improved through handwashing and sanitizing so as to limit the spread of the virus. Frequent washing of hands reduced high rates of getting infected with other diseases (e.g cholera and diarrhea). Masking also has decreased cases of cough and flu.
- Talent identification and development. People realized that they could do other things like dancing, plaiting hair, drawing and many others. Some of these talents would pay them. For instance, I would attend dance classes which helped me to dance in events and then get paid.
- Digital platforms. School being closed did not stop some of the students from learning and so they had to come up with ideas on how to continue with their normal lessons. At this point, teachers found apps that were beneficial to students like Google classroom and Kahoot. This was an amazing experience since one could interact freely with other students and ask questions without any fear.
- Job opportunities. Youths who by then were not employed had the chance to try new things (e.g business). This was a good way of making money since they would sell masks and sanitizers.
- Early marriage. In Kenya, many girls were forcefully married while others did it willingly. Unfortunately, others would get married for money in return and this made them drop out of school.
- Child labour. Students below the age of 18 got themselves into jobs in order to provide food for the family since the loss of jobs among parents was a major issue. The need for money for satisfaction also contributed a lot.
- Introduction of drugs. Bad company and peer pressure made some students start using drugs and that caused some of them to drop out of school. It also made them steal money to get drugs.
- Death rates. It increased since some people did not follow the COVID-19 protocols directed by the government.
Tesloach Jacob made a list of opportunities and challenges brought on by COVID-19:
- Innovation and creativity. Many people took advantage of the pandemic situation and engaged themselves in the improvisation and production of protective gadgets.
- High hygiene maintenance. Most were able to observe the hygiene precautions and standards of hygiene
- Due to the lockdowns caused by COVID, most families became more united.
- Short academic years. This gave students time to read and study on their own. Students also had time to reflect on their career paths and could get insights from interactions with other students worldwide.
- The COVID-19 vaccine. Medical researchers developed the COVID-19 vaccine which really brought us together and gave us the confidence to go back to school.
- Crime reduction. This was due to the strictly restricted curfew and lockdown.
- Short academic year. Education had changed in the Kenyan system due to the need to catch up on the syllabus. School holidays are 1-week long. Academic terms are 10-weeks long. Teachers and students are really under pressure to complete the broad syllabus against limited time.
- Increase in cybercrime. Due to a lack of classes, many students engaged themselves in social networks and online platforms which they were not familiar with.
- Increase in government expenses. The government spent millions on the maintenance of formal education in Kenya, on the vaccine and on security.
- Limited freedom of movement. The government demanded strict restrictions through curfew and definite lockdowns in counties.
- Limited freedom of association. Due to the restrictions brought on by the lockdown, this isolated most people, including the students, making us antisocial.
- Loss of jobs. Most parents and guardians depended on their jobs to provide and cater for their needs, but many lost their jobs during COVID closures and shutdowns.
- Increase in poverty levels. Most Kenyans lost their means of survival and were unable to pay for their daily bread. Payment of school fees is a challenge for many households.
- Separation of families. Most of the families were separated because of the strict lockdown on county-to-county movement.
- Increase in urban and rural migration. This rapid movement was forced by lack of money and opportunities, so many moved from one desperate situation to another.
Debra Mueni made a list of opportunities and challenges brought on by COVID-19:
- Students learned to make masks, which they sold to help their parents in family upkeep.
- Hand washing machines were developed by some students, which led them to discover their talents and helped keep people healthy.
- Social interaction with students from other schools increased and they were able to exchange learning experiences.
- High school students opened up to their parents about the challenges they face at school, including mistreatments by teachers, staff, and other students.
- Increased family unity due to the extra time they had to spend together.
- Short academic years. Terms and school holidays are very short as a result of COVID-19.
- The majority of students were not willing to go back to school because they thought it was not worth the time, especially for those who engaged in menial and casual jobs during the pandemic.
- Child labour increased. Some children needed to work to help their parents with finances.
- The majority of students are not comfortable wearing masks as they felt it limits their breathing.
- Girls were introduced to FGM, particularly in Maasai areas where many girls were circumcised so that they could be married off early.