As we enter month 3 of COVID-19, myself and our amazing team have adjusted to this new way of life, but this hasn’t come without its challenges. I am fortunate to have a reasonably sized house, where I have 2 or 3 options to set up my work station for the day, but as many people have already expressed, working from home is not easy for those who are used to office life! It requires discipline and motivation, plus trying to explain to my furry family of dogs and cats that I am working and not to distract me has failed, and I have now accepted that my workspace is also their sleeping/playing/resting space!
Another challenge is communication, in our office, our dynamic team of biologists, conservationists and educators will often throw ideas around, ask for help when needed and generally support one another, but now communication is often limited to a weekly phone call amongst team members. Finally, motivation comes in waves, in one day I can achieve more than I would in a week in the office but equally days can go by where nothing seems to move forward. There are many distractions when working from home and reasons to procrastinate, not only the distraction of my furry family, which are currently dotted around my workspace, but a 5-minute break can sometimes turn into an hour, while you cook a lavish lunch, or a 5-minute TV break turns into 30-minutes YouTube browsing!
I know I am not the only one going through these motions, friends and colleagues have repeated the same, which brings me comfort during those harder days. But I am an adult, in my 30’s, with a reasonable amount of life experience behind me, and yet I still struggle with self-discipline at times, this got me to thinking, how can we expect our younger audiences to stay focused while studying from home? I recall from my days at school, our teacher struggling to keep our attention longer than 15 minutes sometimes, but they were at least physically there to manage us, not that we were particularly naughty, but children’s attention span is far less than us adults. I once heard that the age of a child reflects their attention span, for example, a 5-year-old will only really listen to you uninterrupted for 5 minutes!
With all the luxuries I have at home and my (mostly) adult brain, I still have slow days, so how on earth are the students we would normally work with coping right now? We already know that many of these students come from rural communities in Kenya, that infrastructure in schools is often limited, that teachers are overworked and underpaid and many do not have access to e-learning opportunities, and this was before COVID-19. Schools in Kenya closed on 16th March and are still closed now, in June, and as time passes the likelihood of these schools reopening this year becomes less likely. Myself and Fatma, my colleague, decided to reach out to some of the teachers in our network to better understand if these students are being engaged in some kind of academia. And what we learned from these talks and interviews really highlights the huge challenges they face.
Worryingly, this pandemic is only widening the gap between students in urban or more developed environments and students in rural communities. Our work has exposed us to students from various backgrounds and one thing that is evident is that every student has a passion for learning. In fact, in my experience, the students from less privileged backgrounds have an insatiable hunger for education, grasping on to any learning opportunity and truly appreciating any chance to learn, knowing that they do not have the privilege of complacency that their age mates from more privileged backgrounds sometimes show.
I would like to add, what I am going to recall from these interviews are not reflective of Kenya as a whole. We have written a report of these findings and will be developing a programme as well as seeking funding, all with the objective to support these students and teachers during this time. But I wanted to highlight some of their concerns, if only to highlight to people similar to me, who are from developed countries or privileged backgrounds, that it is a privilege to take education for granted, that we had opportunities that not everyone gets, and why it is up to us all to do more to help our communities, because education is not a privilege, but a necessity for every one of us.
I will only focus on three concerns raised by teachers, there were many, and anyone interested can contact us directly to learn more. The first concern I want to note is that many of these students do not have the infrastructure to study from home, often living in one room, where there is no desk, no electricity, limited lighting and in the current season of heavy rains, homes may become wet and flooded, making it almost impossible to study. The second concern was that even if students have access to electricity and a work space, often they come from families where older siblings have dropped out of school (less than 50% of children in our county make it to secondary school) and parents are often illiterate, which means even the most disciplined students may not have anyone they can seek help or advice from in their family home. I would like to add, the Kenyan Government are making big efforts to ensure that education continues, launching lessons on TV channels and on the radio, which works great for students in the big cities, but I go back to my first concern, most of the students here do not have access to this kind of technology, and even if they did, e-learning is a rather alien concept, with students heavily relying on their teachers for guidance.
Finally, the longer schools are closed, the more likely many students will simply not return, dropping out to help at home and to support their family, who are also suffering from job losses etc. Some teachers worry that teenage pregnancy will be a problem and that if the whole school year has to be repeated (which is becoming increasingly more likely as time goes by), parents will not be able to afford to send their children back to school. This will only exacerbate the current conditions of poverty, unemployment, and habitat degradation, to name a few.
I honestly could go on but I won’t. I will end on this, if we can reach these forgotten students, then we can move one step close to equality in education. There are many ways you can help, the biggest one being donating to our programmes (links are below). We also want to hear from you, especially if you are a teacher, parent or student, no matter where you are based, your experience can be shared, because we are all in this together, and we will only move forward through communication and knowledge sharing.
Kelly Martin is the co-founder of the Conservation Education Society, based in Diani, Kenya. Kelly received her undergrad in Zoology from Liverpool John Moore’s University and a Masters in Primate Conservation from Oxford Brookes University. She has been living in Kenya for nearly 5 years.