COVID-19 Exposes Africa’s Soft Underbelly as Schools Reopen

Published on 13th October 2020

A Crossover of Care and Caution

How many African countries have an up-to-date and functional GIS database of their basic schools, complete with the key attributes needed to enhance efficiencies and facilitate centralised management while providing location-based intelligence for security and emergency response? Are leaders drawing lessons from the disruptive COVID-19 experience on the promises of information technologies to the critical and complex sector of Education?

As at October 13, 2020, the global case fatality rate was 2.9% - ahead of Africa’s 2.4% and Kenya’s 1.9% (up from 1.6% recently). The recovery rates have been increasing, reaching a mean of 75% globally, 80% in Africa, and 75% in Kenya by the same date. With more than 7 million cases already this week, India, as earlier expected and projected in this series as testing rates increased, is now headed to catch up with the USA in COVID-19 cases. The USA has reported more than 8 million cases already, albeit with a lower recovery rate of 65% and worse case fatality rate of 2.7% than India’s 87% and 1.5%, respectively.

Education Sector Management as a Mirror of Leadership Quality 

The plane-mirror view throws a virtual image showing the raging headwaters of COVID-19 to be behind us, but the real magnitude of the downstream effects of the wavy warrior which is the wily pandemic is still hidden from sight as African countries reopen basic schools. The periscope needed to expose the concealed future has four critical points. These points form the soft underbelly of educational sector leadership. Under the lens of COVID-19, these weak points have been magnified further. This juncture of adventures calls for open-mindedness and a ready willingness among leaders to explore, understand, anticipate, and quickly respond to the emergent scale and character of the novel coronavirus. The finding in the USA of a young person who has been reinfected by COVID-19 to a more severe degree that the first instance is instructive here. 

The blow COVID-19 has dealt the education sector worldwide needs no introduction. A few African examples have shown the success of online learning, but mainly in flexible sessions and at tertiary levels. Such was my experience on October 8, 2020, when I delivered an uninterrupted virtual guest lecturing session to students from the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment, University of Cape Town. At home, in Kenya, the debate was about when to reopen schools, what conditions must be met first, where, by who, and how. Finally, Kenya reopened basic schools on October 12, 2020 with candidate classes to act as a trial group for learning how things would turn out. The reported daily infection rates have increased, from below 5% before the easing of restrictions on gatherings and curfew hours in the last week of September, to several instances of double digits thereafter. With 41,937 total cases reported on October 13, the simulation model used in this series shows a trend that is already beyond the adjusted optimistic scenario that would have seen Kenya reach below 41,000 cases by November 10, 2020.

It is worth repeating here that education as a sector is a complex system with diverse stakeholders, whose diverse interests tend to compete, conflict, complement, or even display a mixture of these. Lessons from nature and ancient literature have not lost their relevance and potency when it comes to ensuring effective leadership and management in such a complex sector. The challenge of reopening schools in Africa has exposed the soft underbelly of leadership in this key sector. The key areas worth emphasising are policy, stakeholder participation, the Peter Principle, and the principle of matching resources with the right sources.

The Policy Underbelly

In 1965, Sir Geoffrey Vickers wrote his famous “The Art of Judgment: A study of policy making.” Though a long time ago, his position that policy making should give direction, coherence, and continuity to executive action remains as powerful then as now. The evident lack of direction, coherence, and continuity in many declarations from the Ministry of Education and the ambush to key stakeholders on reopening dates as witnessed in Kenya already betrays a failure in the policy process. Again, the standards set by the Ministry of Health for resuming face-to-face classes have largely not been met.

Meeting the set standards requires prior arrangements that cannot be fulfilled by the majority of deprived schools and learners unless government intervenes with massive funding and infrastructure development, which requires more time than the notice periods served. Achieving the desired health and safety measures calls for careful planning and support informed by parameters such as the ratio of learners to teachers and the triangle of quality, access and cost of education as well as similar basic services aimed at containing COVID-19.

The rising cost of education, aggravated by the effects of the pandemic on business and income, has complicated matters for parents and many private schools. The situation already portends increasing pressure on public schools. Public schools, however, are not adequate in number, geographical proximity to populations, infrastructure and utilities, or the critical human resources needed to teach and take care of the young learners in an environment threatened by the resurgent and highly infectious pandemic.

The Stakeholder Participation Underbelly

Though Sherry Arnstein conceptualised the “Ladder of Citizen Participation” way back in 1969, many countries in Africa have yet to understand and implement what true stakeholder engagement means. What passes for citizen participation is still at the level of tokenism, merely informing key stakeholders such as parents and teachers about decisions arrived at in boardrooms through processes that largely ignore or exclude their active participation and genuine concerns. Taskforces that are lacking in the representation of the underprivileged in society and their voices are prone to bias in decision making. Democratic public participation suffers in such exclusivist processes.

The Peter Principle Underbelly

Laurence J. Peter observed in 1969 that people in a hierarchy tend to rise from super competence, competence, and finally to their “level of incompetence”. This could not be more accurate as troubled leaders in charge of the Ministry of Education face up to COVID-19 in schools. Experience proves that the past superlative success of a leader in former positions is not an assurance of continued success in subsequent positions. It is becoming clear that promotion can lead to diminishing returns as the curve of performance dips with hierarchy.

The Source-Resource Mismatch Underbelly

This series has used a bee and ant analogy before to expose the blunder of swapping people’s roles and goals based on linear thinking. Though both animals are excellent in industry and determination, swapping roles to assign the bee the task of building an anthill and the ant the task of making a honeycomb will see each of them score nil irrespective of the time given to deliver. Isn’t this what we practise when we assume that high performers can deliver well on just any role as we keep shifting their positions in corporate management and government?

It is high time the African countries caught up in similar situations re-examined these four areas and took decisive action to stay ahead of the post-pandemic curve. Educational infrastructure development and the role of technology in planning and administration must take centre stage. Otherwise, as old as these cited references are but nonetheless relevant to date, so are the problems ailing education and other key sectors going to overstay and remain relevant for years to come. Things could just turn out to be the next normal taking after the last normal, and not necessarily a brand new normal that is loaded with desired promises for achieving long-term development goals. The time for action is now.

By Nashon Adero
The author is a youth mentor, writer, and a lecturer in the School of Mines and Engineering, Taita Taveta University, Kenya.
[email protected]

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