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Exodus to rural schools as Covid saps incomes

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Children and parents queue at Concordia Primary School in Mombasa to seek admission on January 4, 2021. FILE PHOTO | NMG

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Summary

  • The Covid-19 economic crisis has put many families across the country in a fix, forcing them to make hard choices, if only to stay afloat.
  • Arguably, none has been as tough as the choice of school for the thousands of parents who have had to drastically cut their expenditure in the face of shrinking income sources.
  • The hole dug by the health pandemic on many a parent’s pockets was evident when schools reopened on January 4 with most seeking to transfer their children from private to public institutions.

The Covid-19 economic crisis has put many families across the country in a fix, forcing them to make hard choices, if only to stay afloat.

Arguably, none has been as tough as the choice of school for the thousands of parents who have had to drastically cut their expenditure in the face of shrinking income sources.

The hole dug by the health pandemic on many a parent’s pockets was evident when schools reopened on January 4 with most seeking to transfer their children from private to public institutions. Keeping their children in private schools, some of which charge a Kingsly sum, some reported, was no longer a luxury they could afford.

Not all public schools are the same and for parents pushed into a tight financial corner, the easiest option to extricate themselves from such situations was to send their children to school in rural areas where the cost of living is at least bearable. And that is precisely what Ms Jane Mwende did when push came to shove.

“I could no longer afford the Sh20,000 rent for my salon premises at Donholm and the Sh15,000 rent in Tena where I was living with my sons,” said Ms Mwende who has since enrolled her children in a school in Machakos after relocating in September.

In the months leading to the shift, the mother of three had watched as the situation went from bad to worse. First her customer numbers drastically reduced, then on some days hardly any came. When her debts started piling up, she knew she had to cut her losses and adjust her lifestyle accordingly. She terminated the employments of her two employees and surrendered the premises to the landlord.

Ms Mwende said the schools change was necessary given that she was paying Sh34,000 on average for one child’s school fees besides other expenses that easily take the amount to over Sh40,000.

In retrospect, she is thankful she correctly read the economic situation. Parents who have stayed put in the privates schools were slapped with extra charges brought about by the schools compliance with the Ministry of Health Covid-19 safety guidelines.

Particularly, parents are distressed over transport charges that have gone up by as much as 80 percent and costs of purchasing requirements like face masks.

The institutions justify the changes to higher fuel and maintenance costs as a result of additional trips made by their dedicated vehicles since they are required to only carry half their normal capacity.

Other schools have resorted to hiring additional vehicles to cover for the shortfall caused by the reduced carrying capacity of their own vehicle, meaning the costs are passed on to parents or guardians.

Some also pointed the need to build extra classrooms, designated hand-washing points, soaps, acquiring new desks and thermal guns for monitoring the temperature.

As more parents in Ms Mwende’s shoes make the tough choices, there has been a marked urban rural migration, a sort of retreat from the harsh economic times in the cities and towns. But analysts don’t foresee the migrants returning soon. Ms Mwende cognisant of this opened another salon in her rural home.

Economist Tony Watima said that the pandemic has motivated the rural migration due to the disruptions it had on the labour market and incomes.

At the start of the pandemic in March last year, the government announced a series of measures to slow the spread of coronavirus and nearly all sectors of the economy were affected leading to declined revenues for businesses. Employees were forced to take unpaid leave, a move that led to reduction in households income.

More than one million workers lost jobs in the three months to June, as companies reported sluggish earnings when the country imposed coronavirus-induced lockdowns that led to layoffs and pay cuts as firms battled falling sales and losses.

When the lockdowns were lifted in July, more than 1.8 million jobs were created in the three months to September, buoyed by more firms resuming operations.

But despite the layoffs easing, incomes levels remain stunted against the salary cuts, high rental and food prices.

“If you talk to the families the income is not the same as it used to be. Chances are they won’t be able to sustain their children in the schools they were,” Mr Watima said.

“From an income point of view, deciding to stay in the rural areas must be happening. If you're coming back to the city, chances are you're not coming back with the children.”

School heads have taken note of the migration as more parents report to their offices seeking admission.

“I am aware of this trend. There are quite a number of requests being made from private to public schools,”Mr Indimuli Kahi, Kenya Secondary’s Heads Schools Association chairman said.

Mr Kahi said a part from the decline in incomes, the movement has also been caused by financial hit on private schools which have faced serious troubles.

The schools that rely on fees for revenues were the hardest hit by the pandemic. Some, unable to pay the salaries, sacked their teachers wholesome. Others deeply cut their salaries or failed to pay.

Many of these teachers took other jobs including farming, or started their own businesses to maintain the basic living expenses.

More than 100 private schools were projected to remain permanently closed, according to Kenya Private Schools Association even on reopening of schools on January 4.

“Fees appear to have increased in the private schools pushing the parents to definitely seek transfers for their children. Others lost teachers and are still in the process of recruiting. Again, if a school doesn’t have enough teachers, then parents will want to move,” Mr Kahi said.

But securing admissions in the target rural schools is not easy. The problem, Mr Kahi said, is that the public schools are already filled since the reopening on January 4, making it hard for them to take new learners.

“There has to be availability to be admitted.”

Mr Kahi who also serves as the principal for Machakos School said for instance at his institution, out of a 1,600- student population, only 27 hadn’t reported at the time of the interview in early January, representing 98.31 percent reporting rate.

“For those who are yet to report, we have already established the reasons including sickness and transport issues. But we understand the challenges of parents,” he added.

“We have seen the instance of students still coming from the reopening, others going out and others having not reported. The issue is there are still children who have not reported and we may not know why it is so,” Kenya Primary School Headteachers Association national chairman Nicholas Gathemia added.

"We are waiting to see if those affected in terms of income they will return," he said.