Why remote learning can’t pay for the school days pupils lost

What you need to know:

  • Children who are absent from school for as low as 10 per cent of the academic year are likely to fall behind in reading and math and are more likely to drop out of school compared with those with perfect attendance. 
  • A majority (58 per cent)  of homes with learners who were out of school due to the pandemic restrictions used self-learning at home.
  • Even when children have technology and tools at home, they may not learn remotely due to competing factors, including child labour and poor environment for learning. 

Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) exam candidate Jaliwa Kwe, was looking forward to completing primary school this year until President Uhuru Kenyatta abruptly ordered schools to close on March 15 to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

His school, Thomas Burke Primary, moved to e-learning.  Every week day between 8am and 3pm for about seven months Jaliwa attended class remotely through the digital platform Microsoft Teams.

“I was ready for KCPE examination this year. For now, all I can do is keep revising hard and attend all my classes” he says.
“Schooling at home was hard though because of all the distractions. For these reasons, I mostly revised at night,” he adds.

One out of six homes with learners who are out of school were not learning at all.

Like the Thomas Burke pupils, one in eight homes with learners used digital platforms for remote learning prior to the phased reopening of schools that started on October 12, according to data from the Survey on Socioeconomic Impact of COVID-19 on Households. 


Although Jaliwa was anxious about returning to school after the lockdown, he was glad to see classmates who he had missed terribly. He is also grateful for the resumption of French and Computer classes that were suspended during remote learning.

Grade Two pupil, Shanelle Oluoch, too cannot wait to see her friends. “I miss my friends and teachers Faith and Violet who used to teach us physical education and fun activities like scouting,” she recalls.  

Shanelle, a pupil at Lang’ata West Primary School attends Zoom classes from 8am to noon.

Jaliwa and Shanelle are some of the lucky few because the digital divide has made it impossible for too many children to learn during the last seven months.

One out of six homes with learners who are out of school due to the pandemic restrictions were not learning at all, according to the household survey that was done from May 30 to June 6.  A majority (58 per cent) used self-learning at home.

The decision to reopen schools in phases was a delicate choice based on Covid-19 surveillance, which will continue while schools are open, and consideration of the impact of keeping children away school including increase in sexual violence against children, early marriage and anxiety, according to the Acting Director General for Health Dr Patrick Amoth.

As debate about when schools should reopen rages on, several global studies find that Covid-19 could lead to permanent loss in learning and socioeconomic setbacks.

Yearly earnings

School closures lasting five months could result in a reduction of about Sh95,000 for each affected student in yearly earnings, finds a recent World Bank study. This translates to over Sh1.7 million over a lifetime. These lost earning could translate overtime to US$10 trillion globally.

Girls are particularly susceptible to dropping out of school during this period. Indeed, within three months of the Covid-19 lockdown the Ministry of Health recorded an increase in teen pregnancies compared to the same period last year.

Children who are absent from school for as low as 10 per cent of the academic year are likely to fall behind in reading and math and are more likely to drop out of school compared with those with perfect attendance.

A 2016 study by researchers from University of Virginia in the US found that students who missed just two days of school a month, which was roughly 10 per cent of the academic year in the US, recorded lower reading and math scores in lower primary school and faced higher risks of dropping out of high school.

The impact of the pandemic on education is particularly grave because even before the crisis, the world was dealing with a learning crisis, with a majority of students (53 per cent) in low- and middle-income countries like Kenya unable to read and understand a simple text by age 10.

In Kenya, another one in five households with students opted for home schooling, according to the household survey by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics. The third-most preferred method of distance learning was TV (16 per cent), followed by radio and online (13 per cent each), print media (nine percent) and social media (eight per cent).

The effects of the coronavirus crisis on education is of concern worldwide. At least a third of the world’s schoolchildren – children  – were unable to access remote learning as Covid-19 spread across the world, according to a recent Unicef report.

Unicef warns that we are facing a global education emergency and the situation is likely far worse. Even when children have the technology and tools at home, they may not be able to learn remotely through those platforms due to competing factors at home including pressure to do chores, child labour, a poor environment for learning and lack of support in using the online or broadcast curriculum.

As Jaliwa found out, one of the challenges of remote learning is that it demands that one ignore distractions that they are naturally drawn and are before their faces all the time.

Save the Children International, a children’s rights organisation, warns that deep budget cuts to education and rising poverty due to economic decline related to Covid-19 could force about 10 million children out of school forever by the end of this year, with millions more falling behind in learning.

Anxiety and setback

Even for those children who have or will return to school, many will have experienced significant obstacles with their learning and wellbeing as the quality of remote education is not at par with in-person training.

 Jaliwa and Shanelle have their parents to guide and support them through e-learning at home, but many learners in Kenya have parents who are not able to read and write and provide e-learning technology necessary such as smartphones, laptops, Wi-Fi and hotspots. Even if children in these situations get hold of printed materials that their schools send through social media, they are unlikely to continue to learn satisfactorily.

According to Save the Children, many children experience stress and anxiety without the safety, protection and support that schools and teachers afford, on top of the socioeconomic effects of the crisis on families that were already struggling.

Following removal of restrictions, Kenya is experiencing a surge in daily new Covid-19 cases. About three million Grade Four, Standard Eight pupils and Form Four students returned to school on October 12 while the remaining 10.5 million primary and secondary school learners were scheduled to report back to school on October 26, before the plan was shelved.