Business Unusual: School health and Safety of Learners in Kenyan Schools

June 16, 2023

As the world marks the International Day of the African Child, the safety of older children in Kenyan boarding schools is an issue of great concern. In the past, parents breathed a sigh of relief after their child turned five as it was assumed that they were out of extreme danger that seemed to surround the African child. However, the new nightmare now lies in boarding schools that have, over the last years, been plagued with multiple deaths of students in cases that may be considered negligence on the part of teachers and school administrators.

For the second time, tragedy struck the Sacred Heart Mukumu Girls’ Secondary School in April 2023, leaving scores of students hospitalized and others dead, as a result of suspected food poisoning. Last year, two students from the same school were reported to have succumbed to a similar incident. Students from St Ignatius Mukumu Boys High School and St Peter’s Seminary were also reported to have suffered the same fate.

Schools should be safe havens for all learners, the environment and care provided therein should support their learning outcomes. For students from dysfunctional families, school is an escape from their unbearable lives given the time they spend in school, their interactions with their peers and the support system that gives them a sense of belonging and security. While at school, students grow and develop socially, physically, and even psychologically. Thus,  the role of the school in safeguarding learners cannot be overemphasized. School safety is also an integral part of the teaching and learning process, and lack of the requisite safeguarding measures can impede learning.

Despite the presence of regulatory frameworks and guidelines on child protection, monitoring to ensure compliance, and partnerships for effective coordination among stakeholders to ensure implementation, is vital in safeguarding the health and well-being of our children while in school. Safety of children notwithstanding, it is also important to ensure that teachers are also safe, as they often act as the caregivers of the children when in school.

Laws and Policies on safeguarding children

In Kenya, the Government has developed and adopted child protection laws and policies. Article 53 of the Constitution stipulates the rights of the child to be protected from any form of exploitation, harmful practices, and all forms of violence. The Children’s Act (2022), the Basic Education Act (2013), as well as the School Health and Safety Policy (2018) provide for the requisite safeguarding measures as well as implementation guidelines to ensure the health and well-being of children in the schools and their surrounding environment. However, children are still exposed to harmful practices, varied forms of abuse, and risks in the home and school environment.

There is a joke in development circles about how Kenya tops the charts in developing sound policies, which are then adopted and implemented in neighboring countries, implying the lack of implementation and monitoring of the said policies. To some education stakeholders, policies are made in “heaven” while their implementation is done on “earth”, implying the disconnect between the policies as is on paper and what is normally implemented in practice, in this case. What we are witnessing in our boarding schools is an example of the presence of policies that may not be necessarily implemented, as they should be.

Why are the policies not being implemented?

The School Health Policy (2018), for instance, covers different aspects of school safety from nutrition, water, hygiene, and sanitation, disease prevention and control, school infrastructure, and environmental health safeguards. However, implementation has been hampered by the lack of proper coordination between the Ministries of Education, and Health, and other partners responsible for the implementation of these policies. There is also a disconnect between the policies of the relevant ministries. According to the registration guidelines for setting up schools by the Ministry of Education, the dimensions required for setting up structures such as latrines, dormitories, and classrooms are specified. This is, however, not indicated under the school health policy. The levels of awareness of the said policies by the school managers, and community members who are expected to support the implementation are varied. Furthermore, most schools are ill-prepared and lack the capacity to respond to health and other related emergencies.

The Government also ought to provide adequate financial as well as human resources to support schools and develop proper mechanisms to respond to emergencies. In addition, attaining the school health policy regulations requires an integrated and multi-sectoral approach. This will ensure proper coordination of the different programs and interventions on child protection and safety.

Monitoring for effective implementation at the various levels

Monitoring to ensure compliance is vital in ensuring the safety measures put in place protect learners. The roles and responsibilities of school managers in promoting the health and safety of learners in schools are clearly defined under the Basic Education Act of 2013. For example, schools are required to ensure they provide clean and safe water as well as food that is fit for human consumption. They are also required to provide adequate sanitation facilities, that is, toilets and handwashing points, as stipulated in the guidelines and policies.

Secondly, education and health officials at the county and sub-county levels are required to foster compliance and support schools in implementing the policies that safeguard learners. These include the Quality Assurance and Standards Officers (QASO), the county education officers, and public health officers, responsible for assessing and supporting schools to provide a conducive learning environment devoid of hazards.

Partnership and accountability for the effective implementation of policies on safeguarding are important. Hence, the officials from the Ministry of Health, and the Ministry of Education should work together to ensure the implementation of initiatives and programs that safeguard students’ health and well-being.

Ongoing partnerships between schools and healthcare providers are pivotal in promoting the health of learners. Despite some form of partnership between the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education at the local level, it is often ad-hoc and fragmented. For instance, most boarding schools nationwide have trained nurses who are usually the first point of contact for learners who require medical attention while in school. In addition, schools usually refer students to nearby healthcare centers in cases of emergencies. At the national level, the collaboration between the various partners, that is, the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Agriculture as well as development partners, should be enhanced.

Schools must adopt more preventive measures instead of knee-jerk reactions in dealing with healthcare emergencies and crises in schools, such as the recent cases of food poisoning. Proper food handling, hygiene, and storage should be a key priority for the school administration. Cognisant of the different factors that are beyond the schools’ control, for instance, contamination of water sources, the school community could also help schools establish safety measures. In cases of a disease outbreak within the community, healthcare providers should issue alerts to schools within their vicinity to put preventive mechanisms in place and safeguard the health and well-being of the school communities. As we celebrate the International Day of the African Child, we must embrace a multi-sectoral approach in the quest to ensure the health and safety of our children in school. This will provide the much-needed technical expertise, financial and human resources, as well as ensure proper planning and monitoring of health programs and interventions in schools.