Kenya’s Unusual Solution to the School Problem: Cancel the Year and Start Over

By Abdi Latif Dahir

Some students were taking classes online, while others couldn’t. So the government scrapped the school year for all. But the move may just make educational inequality worse.

Esther Adhiambo, center, attending a review class at a local community center in Nairobi. She must now repeat her senior year of high school, and says, “This pandemic has destroyed everything.”
Esther Adhiambo, center, attending a review class at a local community center in Nairobi. She must now repeat her senior year of high school, and says, “This pandemic has destroyed everything.”Credit...Khadija Farah for The New York Times

NAIROBI, Kenya — For Esther Adhiambo, this year was supposed to be a year of endings and new beginnings. She was expecting to complete high school, enroll in a university and get a job to help her single mother, who runs a small tailoring business in Nairobi’s Mathare slum.

Instead, for Ms. Adhiambo and other Kenyan students, 2020 is turning out to be the year that disappeared. Education officials announced in July that they were canceling the academic year and making students repeat it. They are not expected to begin classes again until January, the usual start of Kenya’s school year.

Education experts believe Kenya is the only nation to have gone so far as to declare the entire school year a total washout, and order students to start over.

“It’s a sad and great loss,” said Ms. Adhiambo, 18, who wants to get a degree and a job in mass communications to help support her seven siblings. “This pandemic has destroyed everything.”

The decision to scrap the academic year, taken after monthslong debate, was made not just to protect teachers and students from the coronavirus, but also to address glaring issues of inequality that arose when school was suspended in March, said George Magoha, the education secretary. After schools closed, some students had the technology to access remote learning, but others didn’t

But while the goal of canceling the entire school year is to level the playing field, researchers say it might just widen these already-existing gaps. Once schools reopen, the two sets of students will not be on the same level or able to compete equally in national exams, Kenyan education experts said.

“It’s like day and night,” said Ken K. Ramani, an educational economist and communications director at The Technical University of Kenya, who has written widely about education in Kenya.

ImageBillian Okoth Ojiwa founded the local community center in Nairobi where volunteer teachers help students like Esther Adhiambo study while schools are closed.
Billian Okoth Ojiwa founded the local community center in Nairobi where volunteer teachers help students like Esther Adhiambo study while schools are closed.Credit...Khadija Farah for The New York Times

The decision to suspend the academic year affects more than 90,000 schools and over 18 million students in pre-primary through high school, including 150,000 more in refugee camps, according to the education ministry. National exams usually taken by students in their last year of primary school and high school have also been postponed, and there will be no intake of new students in 2021.

Universities and colleges have also been closed for physical classes until Jan. 2021, but can continue holding virtual instruction and graduations.

Over the past two decades, private schools — from kindergartens to high schools — have mushroomed across Kenya. About one-fourth of schools in Kenya are private — supported by private entrepreneurs, religious organizations and nonprofit organizations. Some are start-ups backed by Bill Gates, Microsoft’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, the head of Facebook.

Private schools charge fees ranging from tens of dollars per year to tens of thousands of dollars.

Kenya, like other countries, has been struggling with how to prevent the coronavirus from spreading while keeping schools and the economy humming. After strict restrictions kept the case count low, the country eased limitations on movement, and has in the last month seen a sharp rise in cases. It has reported 23,873 infections and 391 deaths, but that may be a vast undercount because of lack of access to mass testing.

When the government shut down schools in March, it introduced remote lessons streamed over radio, television and videos posted on YouTube. However, for the vast majority of students, many in poor and rural households, remote learning was not an option. They didn’t have access to television, laptops, or the internet, or even the electricity to power these gadgets.

This was the reality facing Johnian Njue, 17, a 10th-grader who lives in Nairobi, but attends a public boarding school in Kwale county in Kenya’s southeast. Raised by a single mother in the Mathare slum, Johnian had been attending the school on a rugby scholarship.

At home, with patchy electricity and no telephone, textbooks or internet, he said he has received little to no instruction from his teachers, and has not been able to access the lineup of remote classes.

When schools closed, Johnian Njue, a public school student, was unable to access remote classes because his home has no internet and patchy electricity. Credit...Khadija Farah for The New York Times

And Johnian has had to take care of his two younger siblings who are at home while his mother is out — which distracts him, he said, even when he wants to study on his own.

Several of his friends from the neighborhood, he said, have started abusing drugs, snatching bags and pick-pocketing, and were not interested in studying together.

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“They say ‘there’s no need of reading. We will repeat the classes next year,’” he said. But he added: “I feel bad. I want to finish school.”

His experience bears little resemblance to that of 11-year-old Verisiah Kambale.

Since March, Verisiah, a fifth-grader at the private Makini School in Nairobi, has taken her classes, including mathematics, science and even physical education, through live video instruction. She interacts with her teachers, and has also been able to talk to her classmates during class breaks.

After school, she takes online classes in music theory and clarinet. She and her brother have the support of their parents, who are both working from home.

Verisiah said that even though she misses in-person classes, she is enjoying studying at home, being with her parents — who used to travel a lot — and having time to write and draw. She is even compiling a book of stories about 11-year-olds’ experiences of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I have been studying and working hard,” Verisiah said. “I don’t want to repeat classes.”

Verisiah Kambale, left, and her brother, Joseph Tayo Kambale, were able to keep up with their classes and even take music lessons online.Credit...Khadija Farah for The New York Times

Even after the government canceled the rest of the school year, some private schools continued holding online classes and charging tuition. This has helped them to stay afloat, and afford to pay rent and the salaries of tens of thousands teachers, cooks, librarians and lab technicians, said Mutheu Kasanga, chairwoman of the Kenya Private Schools Association.

At least 124 private schools are facing closure because of financial constraints brought over by the pandemic

Ms. Kasanga said she was aware that the pandemic has exposed a “digital divide” that’s purely based on the socioeconomic status of parents. But instead of scrapping the entire school year — a move she described as “punishing the children” for the outbreak — she said education officials should have invested in practical solutions to keep children in school, like prioritizing internet connectivity to remote areas.

“As a country, we needed to rally around our poor people and ensure that every household is able to cater to the education of their children,” she said. By not doing that, she said, “We have failed as a country.”

Mutheu Kasanga, the chairwoman of the Kenya Private Schools Association, said the government’s move to scrap the entire school year is like “punishing the children” for the coronavirus outbreak.Credit...Khadija Farah for The New York Times

Susannah Hares, co-director of the global education program at the Center for Global Development, a research group, said the decision to keep schools closed until January was “understandable,” because public school classrooms are crowded, and many lack facilities for hand-washing.

But the move, she said, is “likely to be devastating for children” because the poor will be at a disadvantage and some will not come back when schools reopen. In addition, she predicted there would be more teenage pregnancies and, without school food programs, more hunger.

Kenya’s government acknowledged the challenges inherent in closing schools, including unequal access to learning platforms, a possible increase in domestic violence against children and the likelihood that dropout rates will rise.

Mr. Magoha said last week that the ministry would launch a community program that would pair teachers with students who don’t have access to education.

However, some parents with children in private schools aren’t waiting for the government to reopen schools next year. Some are considering moving their children to British, French or other private foreign schools in Kenya, which still plan to give their students foreign-standardized tests at the end of this academic year. Students who pass those tests can advance to the next grade, while students who were supposed to take the Kenyan tests — now canceled — will be left behind.

“In a worst-case scenario, come January, what if the government isn’t ready to open schools?” said Verisiah’s mother, Serah Joy Malaba. Changing to a foreign private school, she said, is “something we’ve thought about.”

That’s not an option for students like Ms. Adhiambo who are in public schools and whose parents cannot afford the thousands of dollars charged annually at private schools.

For a few days a week, she goes to a local community center where volunteer teachers help her review her coursework.

“At least I am lucky,” she said of the study sessions. “My friends don’t even have this.”