Schools open or close because of corona? On the African continent it is still a much bigger dilemma than in Europe. According to figures from Unesco, the United Nations Educational Organisation, schools are completely closed in 12 sub-Saharan countries.
Kenya has even decided to cancel the whole school year. The schools will not reopen until January 2021. Some 18 million children, teenagers and young adults have been at home for seven months. With great consequences.
Take 15-year-old Mary, who only dares to tell her story under a fictitious name. She was happy at school. She is an orphan and is cared for by a friend of her mother with whom she does not have a good relationship. School meant a place where she was listened to. Her family struggles financially through corona.
When Mary met a man who bought her food and clothes, it was a relief. But it came with a price. She is four months pregnant. “If Id still been in school, this never would have happened.”
17-year-old Glen Ochieng from Nairobi does not mind not attending school anymore. He only went for the coronavirus pandemic because his mother told him to. But because of the pandemic she lost her job. So Glen had to go to work.
To tell Mary and Glen about what has happened to them since the schools closed:
Long school closures are a big risk, other UN organisations like WHO and Unicef say. Especially in poorer countries, a school is much more than an educational institution. It means a place where you often get a hot meal and where it is relatively safe.
In addition, there is a good chance that many young people will never return to school again. The main concern of international organisations is girls: they are extra vulnerable.
Marys story is no exception. “Girls who go to school are less likely to become pregnant early and are less likely to marry off young,” says Mercy Musomi of the Kenyan organisation Girl Child Network, which tries to keep girls in school. That was already a difficult task for corona.
For example, the number of teenage pregnancies in Kenya has always been high. “And that is only going to increase now,” says Musomi. “Girls now have too much time to deal with other things. And we dont usually see pregnant girls back at school“
Glen doesnt want to go back and his mother is happy with that now. She needs his income. Other former classmates wont be going either, Glen says. “Some of the boys have joined gangs. I even know that two or three boys from my school have been murdered in the last six months” He is proud that he at least earns his money honestly.
The government says it is well aware of these problems. Young people should continue to learn on their own at home. There are lessons via radio, television and online. But not all children have a radio or television or even electricity at home. And learning online is a long way off for many.
“That works in the richer neighbourhoods, but not here in the slums,” says Billian Okoth Ojiwa. He runs a youth centre in the neighbourhood where Glen and Mary also live. “Most parents dont have a smartphone here. And if they already have one, there is no money to buy credit. Moreover, many parents cant help with schoolwork, because they never finished school themselves or because they have to work to feed their families“
Ojiwa is trying to close the gap as best he can. For example, children can go to the centre for a hot meal and students from the neighbourhood can take lessons there via Zoom. “But a lot of young people are doing very different things now. This is disastrous.“
Inequality is increasing
Kenya took the decision to cancel the school year in July because the corona peak was expected in December and the government wanted to keep children, adolescents and teachers free of corona. In the meantime, the official number of infections per day has decreased enormously. In the country, 36,301 infections and 634 deaths have been recorded.
Another reason to cancel the school year was precisely because the government saw that many children were lagging behind and did not have access to home schooling. The government thought it would be better for everyone to repeat the year.
But more expensive public schools often continue with online programmes. “The inequality between young people in good schools, who are able to learn online, and young people in poorer neighbourhoods is now even greater,” says Ojiwa.