Private schools soldier on in spite of COVID-19 consternation.

Private schools soldier on in spite of COVID-19 consternation.

Figure 1 PVA children at play in the past.

On Friday, January 1, 2021, most citizens of the world were waking up lazily, joyfully and with great relief. Being alive on this first day of the New Year felt like stepping on solid land after being shipwrecked for nearly the whole of 2020.

For Dr Purity Irungu, there was a slight difference. Schools were set to open on Monday and she had no idea what to expect. The proprietor and director of Prestigious Vineyard Academy (PVA) in Sunrise Estate in Nairobi’s Donholm area, had prepared the best she could but 2020 had shocked her.

“My head teacher left,” says Dr Irungu. “I have recruited a new one but it has removed only a small portion of the many uncertainties.” Although she acknowledges being tempted to worry, she believes they will find solutions to their numerous challenges. “We don’t know how long COVID-19 will last but we will deal with all eventualities.”

Dr Irungu says the school needs money to support social distancing and pay teachers. They also have the problem of falling student number because a significant number of parents have sent their children to public schools.

“If the government came to our aid, it would be helpful. The banks are inviting us to take loans but how can we when everything is so uncertain? We don’t want to be auctioned.”

Figure 2 Pupils of PVA in a past graduation. Many parents have moved their children to public schools.

Yet it is not all loss as there is something of a musical chairs at play. Dr Irungu says that though they have lost some pupils, they have also gained others. They have received children whose parents’ incomes plummeted but can still afford a lower-end private school like PVA.

One of the things Dr Irungu appreciates is the speed with which the children have embraced social distancing and hand-washing. “We see an improvement in pupil’s understanding of the need to socially distance and faithfully wash hands regularly.”

In spite of the challenges, Dr Irungu sees a lot of positives in the schools’ reopening. “Without a doubt (schools needed to reopen) for the welfare of the children,” she says. “We know girls are getting pregnant and boys are sliding into crime. Schools do more than just give them knowledge. It protects them from idleness and its consequences. Also, some home environments are very difficult. School saves such children. School is the equalizing factor that evens out their chances in life compared with better off kids. So yes, it was absolutely necessary for schools to open.”

She appeals for the government to see private schools as partners in educating the entire society. “No child belongs to private schools. All children are the government’s. And children cannot all fit into public schools. Public schools are our partners, we work together to secure the future of our society.” She appeals to the government to see them that way.

Dr Irungu’s words are backed by teacher Annabel Nyambura who teaches in another famous private school in Donholm. Her employer declined to grant her permission to mention the school’s name during this interview. Annabel reveals that she is conscious of her vulnerability to COVID-19 infection. She acknowledges being exposed both as a teacher and also as a parent.

However, she is relieved that the children have adapted quickly to wearing masks and washing hands. “And some parents have done a really good job of training their children and making sure they have everything they need in their bags,” Annabel says. “This guards against a child asking another for a sanitiser or a stationery, thereby minimising chances of transmission among the children.”

Figure 3 Mother and teacher Annabel and her children. She says life has to go on and the children cannot be hidden forever.

As a parent, the possibility of her children catching the virus frightens her. However, she the fact that they have been well so far gives her hope. “Besides, life doesn’t stop and you can’t keep children hidden all the time. You know that even those who got Covid had likely been taking measures. You feel helpless, divided and fearful but life has to be lived. So we just plough on.”

This reporting is with support of UNICEF Kenya under the Back to school campaign program being run by Centre for Behaviour Change and Communication (CBCC) aimed at encouraging parents to take their children back to school, empowering them on how to ensure their children’s safety and support the schools to be safe for the children during this COVID-19 season through community mobilization.

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