By Maniza Zaman, UNICEF Representative to Kenya, and Dr Githinji Gitahi, Group CEO of Amref Health Africa
This article first appeared in The Standard newspaper on Tuesday 3 November.
When schools closed in Kenya in March this year, we knew very little about COVID-19 – who was most affected, how it spread, or the most effective measures to contain it. Many countries, including Kenya, closed schools, one of many public health measures to slow down disease spread and buy time to ensure the health system would be able to withstand a surge in cases of patients needing hospital care.
However, like other measures to contain the virus, this came with unintended consequences. School closures interrupted learning for over 17 million students in Kenya, who missed more than six months of formal education. We know that the longer children are out of school, the greater the risk that the poorest among them will never return. They also face increased risks of violence, child labour and child marriage, and to their mental wellbeing. Schools are a vital safety net for the most vulnerable children, protecting them from these risks.
Now, at the start of November, we know more about COVID-19 than we did in March. Importantly, we have learned that children are not the main drivers of the pandemic. Evidence from large-scale research shows that children, especially those under 10-years-old, are less susceptible to COVID-19 and less likely to transmit it than adults. According to the Kenya Daily Situation Report of 1 November, people aged 19 and under account for only 9 percent of all confirmed infections, despite accounting for around 50 percent of the population.
As the Government considers the further reopening of schools, they will be weighing the risks and benefits of such a measure. UNICEF and Amref are clear in our view – based on all the available evidence – that the risks to children of being out of school are much higher than the risks they encounter in schools. It is important to remember that closing schools does not take children out of contact with each other and with adults. Rather, it takes children out of a protective school environment, in which their interactions can be controlled. This is why we are supportive of the Government’s phased reopening of schools – it allows schools to open with lower numbers of children and gives them time to increase the numbers as they learn how to manage safety and mitigate risks.
We still support this process and believe it should continue, even if COVID-19 cases are rising. We are learning lessons from the recent return of exam year students. Water, sanitation and hygiene are critical. Schools must have a good supply of water and soap. Proper mask wearing is important, especially for older children. Appropriate social distancing measures should be in place with good ventilation. School administrators should be fully familiar with protocols for COVID19 case management and contact tracing.
Overall, with 2 million children back in school, things are working despite the challenges. Decisions on the next stage of phased reopening could consider those age groups where the risk of transmitting COVID-19 is the lowest, such as the primary and pre-school years. As additional year groups return and space becomes more limited in schools, we need to consider using other facilities as classrooms, such as nearby offices, places of worship and open spaces where available and safe.
Reopening schools can also help restart the economy. If children do not go back to school, some parents cannot go back to work. Reopening workplaces, markets, restaurants and places of worship also come with risks. In all these places, prevention and mitigation measures are critical to reduce transmission.
UNICEF and Amref recommend adherence to Government guidelines which cover workplaces, markets, places of worship and social gatherings, as well as schools. Any confirmed COVID-19 cases in schools are likely to be linked to the community. It is important for communities to implement safe practices to ensure the safety of children.
These are now well known: hand washing, mask wearing and social distancing. Or to put it simply: hands, face and space.
To support the phased reopening of schools, UNICEF is distributing soap and installing hand-washing facilities in many schools and procuring reusable masks for children. We are also supporting a ‘Back to School’ campaign, which aims to ensure that all children, including those that had previously dropped out, return to schools safely as they reopen.
Amref has also increased its community engagement activities. These include educating communities on prevention practices – handwashing, wearing face masks, social distancing – and supporting frontline health workers, including community health workers, to increase the safety of communities. Amref is also focusing attention on continuity of health services, to ensure children are safe through routine immunization and mothers have safe delivery.
Kenya is adjusting to a new way of living with COVID-19, with measures in place to mitigate the spread of the virus. This is likely to continue for many more months. Most businesses that were closed across the country have been allowed to re-open with strict guidelines. The same should also apply to schools – we have to learn to live with COVID-19, including through safe learning, until we have access to vaccines for everyone. No one knows when this will be.
Kenya’s children, like those in other countries around the world, have lost so much this year. It’s time for them – and their parents – to start getting their lives back on track.