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  • In Kinango Village in Kenya's Kwale County, Coast Province, a boy reads a book.
    AKDN / Lucas Cuervo Moura
Aga Khan Foundation
Back to school, but not back to normal: Lessons from our field programmes

Across the globe, “back to school” looked very different this September. Educators, parents, and policymakers have grappled with a common question for months: How to keep children safe while learning?

When schools across East Africa closed in mid-March – like many schools around the world – there was no clear indication of how long the closures would last. The Government of Uganda’s initial statement on 20 March suggested that this decision would likely last 30 days, at which point they would revisit their stance… a decision that has yet to be reversed for most schools across the country.

Kenya, for its part, has officially announced that most schools will remain closed for the remainder of the calendar year. This year will be considered a lost academic year, with students being required to start their grade level again in January.

While schools are closed, local governments have been delivering various long-distance learning programmes to keep students engaged. In Kenya, students can tune in to television shows designed for learning. The Ugandan government has distributed printed study materials and radios for students to listen to academic radio programming.

With support from the Government of Canada, the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) and its partners have spent the past six months planning and implementing a COVID-19 response plan geared towards helping children in Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya to continue learning at home during school closures. This plan builds on a suite of resources that the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) has developed to help educators and families support children’s learning at home during the COVID-19 crisis.

Supporting at-home learning looks very different across different contexts. In some remote and isolated areas, phone and print-based materials are most appropriate. In other cases, where children have access to TVs or radios, media is a key channel for encouraging their education.

For example, in Kenya, AKF has animated and filmed a series of short video stories, in partnership with the Government of Canada and the LEGO Foundation. These stories are aired on national television to encourage kids’ passion for storybooks and reading.

Wherever it works, the AKDN endeavours to partner with local government authorities, building on their investments, and supporting existing initiatives to amplify their impact. Regardless of the context or country, a few common themes have emerged, which are core tenets in the design of our at-home learning materials.


Promoting gender equality: School closures and community lockdowns have increased multiple risks for girls in the communities where we work. Girls are less likely to be allotted time at home to study, as their families often overburden them with household chores and childcare responsibilities for their younger siblings. The risk of gender-based violence has also increased significantly throughout the pandemic, due to stress and isolation. As such, we have worked to ensure that any of our educational resources and programmes reinforce positive messaging around gender equality and every girl’s right to education. We host radio talk shows for parents to support them in teaching their children at home, and use these shows as an opportunity to engage in a discussion on the importance of girls’ education. The printed learning materials we distribute to households are gender-sensitive and use examples and pictures that challenge harmful gender norms.


Khairat Ghazy, a teacher, develops materials in preparation for her online lesson. She is a member of a WhatsApp group with other pre-primary teachers, and will share the materials in that group, as well.

Supporting teachers: The pandemic took the entire world by storm, but few professions have been more aggressively impacted than teaching. Within the span of a few weeks, teachers have been expected to become distance educators, IT experts and social workers for their students, all the while coping with the effects of the pandemic themselves. Our response programmes have been designed through consultations with teachers, with the aim of providing them the resources and training they need to take on these new roles and responsibilities. For example, we are establishing WhatsApp groups that allow teachers to support one another and share tips for distance learning. We are also implementing distance training programmes to help teachers learn about new materials and pedagogical practices to help them navigate today’s challenging circumstances.

“The Madrasa Early Childhood Programme-Kenya helped sharpen my skills in developing teaching and learning resources using low-cost, locally available materials with a focus on the COVID-19 situation. We develop these materials and share in our WhatsApp group for further guidance from other teachers. I currently use these materials to facilitate online lessons for my pre-primary 2 class, making learning fun and interactive for my children. I also encourage parents to make the same materials for their children to physically manipulate, to help ensure better learning for children while at home.” -- Khairat Ghazy, Mombasa County, Kenya.


Left to right: Sarah Aseru (Madrasa Early Childhood Programme staff member), Night Sauda (teacher,) and Yamandu Siraje (teacher) recording a radio lesson on Arua One station in West Nile, Uganda.
Addressing inequity: For many communities where the AKDN works, school closures risk amplifying already existing inequities in education systems. Students who live in more urban areas, who have access to digital learning technologies and who are permanent residents or citizens (rather than refugees or internally displaced persons) are more likely to have access to distance learning opportunities. Others risk being left behind. Our response has been designed to ensure that the resources and services we develop are provided to all learners, regardless of their identity, background, gender, socio-economic status, or ability. By working with community partners and establishing local task forces comprised of parents, teachers and government stakeholders, we are working to ensure that our programmes directly respond to the needs of all learners in the regions where we work.

While we hope children return to the classroom as soon as possible, we also recognise that in some countries, the rates of COVID-19 infection are still too high, and the school-level sanitation and hygiene infrastructure is not yet adequate. Until schools are ready to re-open, we will continue to support students across our communities to keep learning from home in ways that are responsive to their needs.

And when schools do finally re-open, we’ll be just as eager to support education ministries, head teachers and educators in taking on the challenges that will come with teaching in this new era of education.


In Uganda, a four-year old student works on learning materials that were delivered by the AKF Madrasa Early Childhood Programme.

This article was adapted from an article published on the AKF Canada website.