Lewis Kobatek is a worried twelve-year-old. Since March this year, COVID-19 has suspended learning for him and his classmates. The time in between has been spent trying to catch up with schoolwork, attending to chores, and stressing about what now seems like a wasted year.

Although education ministry officials insist that the 2020 academic year will not be counted as wasted, Lewis is worried he might have to repeat his class. Like most of his classmates at Ndurarua Primary School, a public school in Nairobi’s Dagoretti area, he has had to navigate through the school syllabus by himself.

 The class 6 student splits his day between helping at the family food shop and keeping up with the curriculum. He helps at the family-run eatery from 9 a.m until noon, and heads home to study for three hours before he goes back to assist at the eatery. The fear of repeating his class acts as an internal reminder to stay on top of his studies.

In Kenya, repeating a school year has for long been associated with academically weak or physically unwell students. However, in a year that has turned everything upside down, millions of students fear that circumstances beyond their control might lead to them repeating classes. 

Lewis’ mother, Faith Muthoni feels that the schools should have been opened much earlier to avoid a case of children repeating classes. “Children are playing in the estates without masks or social distancing. With proper sanitizing and masks, school should go on” she says.

The pressing financial and social burden of feeding and keeping their children occupied is no doubt weighing heavily in the minds of most parents. Faith says that despite monitoring Lewis’ movements, he managed to slip away last week and almost got into an accident while hitching an illegal ride at the back of a pickup. “What if I worked far away and did not see him every day?” she poses.

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Lewis at his family-run eatery.

For many public schools and some private schools, continuing with the syllabus online has been a dream that was dead on arrival. Stifled by poor access to technological devices and infrastructure, teachers have had to entrust the responsibility to monitor schoolwork to parents. Most of who are struggling to stave off the financial and medical threats of a raging pandemic and have little time to ensure their children are keeping up with course work.

Globally, many countries have closed schools as a preventive measure against the pandemic, throwing students into panic about retaking their classes. Mary Ncube, a teacher at Kenya High School says that while in previous years they have not had frequent incidences of students who repeat, those who have requested have fitted in very well both socially and improved academically. 

That is the kind of academic success Beth Wanjiru, 10, will be hoping to replicate. The class 3 student attends Heri Junior Academy, a private school in Nairobi’s Kawangware area. “I don’t mind repeating classes. I’d actually want to repeat so that I understand the syllabus properly” she says. Despite the fact that she might not get to go to class 4, she states that she would prefer to repeat the year and grasp the syllabus.

Her mother, Juliet Wanjiru also does not understand why Beth and her classmates might have to repeat class. She wants Beth to finish school on time, as she has a younger sister that needs to finish school as well. In addition, she has other plans that would be delayed if she had to deal with her daughter repeating a class. She says she does not fear the virus as she ‘believes that God is stronger than the virus’

Statements from Kenyan ministry officials show that the government plans to have schools complete the 2020 syllabus by July 2021. The students would then transition to the next class, with final year students expected to sit their exams in March.

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 Beth studies a Social Studies book at home

At the eatery, Lewis has now learnt all the workings of an eatery. After all, he peels, fries and serves potatoes on a daily basis. He shrugs when asked whether working has made him more responsible. “I guess”, although it looks like he would rather be playing with his friends, many of whom he has not seen since March.

In addition to the fear of repeating classes, children are having to deal with living in uncertain times. The implications that this fear might have on their performance is yet to be seen. Teacher Mary offers that parents need to constantly speak positively to their children and be ready to offer necessary support. “Any avenue of doubt allayed to the students with regards to the teacher translates to mistrust and hence no learning will take place in the classrooms and students will be consistently finding excuses to go home citing sickness, stress, eyes, backache, swollen legs and other excuses.”

Juliet is aware that her daughter’s school, though private, would not have the infrastructural and teaching resources needed to comply with the government’s anti-crowding guidelines. January 4th is the date that the government says schools will open, and for many schools it is a race against time to be ready for the millions of learners coming back after a nine-month hiatus.

With a vaccine estimated to roll out mid next year, the government regulations are here to stay. Dr. Davies Otieno, a practitioner at Mater Hospital says that parents may have a reason to be worried because children may be carriers of the disease and therefore likely to drive transmission however that concept is yet to be conclusively determined. Kenya has so far reported over 80,000 cases that have led to 1,400 deaths.

For Lewis, Beth and millions of other children facing the risk of repeating a class, these are uncertain times. For their parents, they face the dilemma of allowing their children to rejoin school and the uncertainty of a pandemic, or to boycott school and figure out the pandemic one day at a time.

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