By Maggie Fick
NAIROBI, Oct 12 (Reuters) - Kenyan schoolchildren in grades four, eight and 12 returned to class on Monday, ending a months-long closure of all educational institutions in the country designed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Many nations have grappled with how to reopen schools safely amid the pandemic, but in Kenya, where public and private schools were shut after the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in March, the closures have been among the longest in Africa.
The three levels going back to school are all preparing for standardized exams that were postponed from November to March.
The government will decide later whether all students can return, Education Minister George Magoha said at a Nairobi primary school, where he accepted a donation of 1 million face masks from a Kenyan bank.
"Procurement processes are not complete for masks," said the minister. "As we prepare to open more schools, we are going to need more masks." He asked companies to donate supplies instead of cash due to corruption in government procurement.
The minister said children should return to school even if they fear they have fallen behind during the months at home.
"No parent should be ashamed to bring their child to school," he said.
More than 17 million Kenyan students have missed six months of school, the United Nations children's agency said, leading to other social problems.
"We are seeing large numbers of reported violence against children, child marriage, child pregnancy, and child labour," said Marilyn Hoar, UNICEF's education chief in Kenya. Some 1.6 million children rely on school meals that stopped in March, she added.
Many families do not have the devices and internet access that enable children to take part in remote schooling.
Like much of Africa, Kenya's COVID-19 outbreak remains relatively mild - 766 deaths and just over 41,500 cases. Although testing is limited, hospitals have not been overwhelmed. Masks are mandatory in public.
In East Africa, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Uganda have not yet reopened schools but plan to this month or in November. All schools in Southern Africa have partially or fully reopened and in Central and West Africa, just one in three countries have reopened schools, according to UNICEF.
Lilian Sambu, 38, said she was relieved to see that every child at her eighth grader's school in Nairobi was wearing a mask. They filed into classrooms after staff took their temperatures.
"My son is safe and I am happy he is back at school because at home he was very idle," she told Reuters after dropping her son Victor at Our Lady of Mercy Primary public school in the Kenyan capital's South B neighbourhood.
Her five children are used to wearing masks, she said. (Reporting By Maggie Fick; Additional reporting by Thomas Mukoya; Editing by Katharine Houreld and Mike Collett-White)
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