One year later: WISER’s principal reflects on COVID-19 challenges and triumphs

“I knew to do this was high risk because families did not adhere to COVID 19 protocols but then it was a risk I had to take for the greater good of WISER girls.”

WISER Principal Dorcas Oyugi

As part of our International Women’s Week Campaign, we’re sharing stories of members of the Global WISER Family leading the way through the COVID-19 pandemic. No one exemplifies the power of highly localized, hands-on leadership than Dorcas Oyugi, WISER’s founding principal. WISER International’s Development Manager, Emily Dake, engaged Madam Dorcas to reflect on this year at WISER.

Interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

So many schools have struggled to support girls while they were at home during COVID-19, both educationally but also with their physical, mental, and sexual/reproductive health. What set WISER apart? 

Following the closure of schools because of the COVID 19 pandemic, WISER School started an online learning program to constructively engage our students while at home. To do this efficiently, we distributed hard copies of learning materials to those who were not able to access the program because of network challenge. We engaged our alumni interns to do this. Fortunately, these four interns had been engaged in January 2020 prior to the first case of COVID 19 in Kenya in March 2020. In addition, WISER NGO through its Chair availed smart phones to effectively run the program. The entire WISER faculty were fully engaged in this program, we set up weekly zoom meetings to fast track content transmission to and from the students, correction of the students’ work, student/teacher consultation and monitoring participation through online student’s class registers.

WISER also quickly instituted a monthly relief program where students came to school in small groups to receive supplies worth 3500 Kenyan Shillings in form of food stuff such as maize, beans, rice, sugar and wheat flour and hygiene products such as bar soaps and sanitary towels coupled with return transportation cost. This largely cushioned the students and their families who were seriously devastated by the effects of the COVID 19 Pandemic. Whenever they came to receive their packages, sessions on Sexual Reproductive Health & psychosocial support were conducted by faculty.

What was the most difficult part of the remote engagement plan WISER put into place? 

When I made visits and some students told me for them to access smart phones some male owners made sexual advances as an exchange to allow them to use their smart phones. This is the reason WISER Chair Sherryl Broverman raised funds to buy smart phones to save our girls from such beasts.

Secondly, I encountered most of our students’ households were making do with one meal a day, and this adversely affected them health wise. 

Thirdly, there were instances where I found the girls unwell but she could not access medical attention from local health facilities because her parents or guardians lacked funds. 

Other instances were more difficult to manage, such as locating one student who had a dispute with her family and disappeared into the neighboring country, or student mothers who had trouble staying engaged when their babies were unwell.

Has covid-19 introduced new challenges, simply exacerbated existing challenges? Or both?

Yes, the absence of physical learning created a gap in major academic gains in the life of students. It also actually disrupted individual students in many different ways. Prolonged time at home resulted in the increased number of pregnancies, and in some cases child labor accelerating dropout rate. Poverty levels increased with the decrease in socio-economic activities within the community, sinking many families into abject poverty. Starvation threatened most families because of the fact that there were additional mouths to feed. This hurt and devastated most households.

What do you think people outside of Rural Kenya don’t understand the struggles the community is facing during the pandemic? 

The assumption that in rural areas people are in their homes where they don’t pay rent and utility so life is easy and affordable as opposed to urban setting. Most NGOs focus in informal settlements in urban areas as opposed to rural areas.  

Do you think there’s anything you’ve done/learned during the pandemic that you’ll carry on even after it is resolved in the next couple of years? 

Human capital is invaluable indeed, and institutions should invest here. Teamwork is critical to the success of any processes undertaken towards a desired goal. 

Fully embracing technology and maintaining connectivity with students and faculty while at home was key, as well as continuing home visits particularly during the prolonged holidays that are coming up. We will also continue to observe strict hygiene to promote healthy environment and stay wary of large crowds.

How are the girls taking it? What is their outlook considering this global crisis is happening during some of their most formative years? Have you seen any trends or changes that you think are a direct result of the pandemic? 

Our girls were seriously disappointed with prolonged school closures which have resulted in an extension of their school timeline such as movements to the next class or delayed national exams. In general, schools are finding it hard to contain students who were engaged in distracting activities such as drugs, piki riding and mining. In this time of difficulty, girls were mostly affected by issues around sexual and gender-based violence and unsafe abortions which increased, especially among young girls. Data from schools indicate pregnancy rate tripled.

How important was it for you to go face to face (socially distanced!) to see students while they were at home? 

It was critical to do home visits in order for me to see and access how the girls were coping at home, of concern was their physical, mental and emotional health. Seeing me in their homes helped them manage their anxiety on the indefinite closing of schools. It gave them hope someday schools would reopen and an assurance WISER still cared for them. I knew to do this was high risk because families did not adhere to COVID 19 protocols but then it was a risk I had to take for the greater good of WISER girls.

Obviously, with 240 students in a highly localized community, it was feasible for you and your staff to visit them all. What lessons do you think larger, more spread out agencies could take from your work even if they can’t replicate it exactly? 

Home visits were done for 180 students from the Muhuru community, and 94% of our student population actively participated in the online program.  I think to do what we did and gain the success rate we achieved, other agencies need to facilitate and build employee capacity and avail resources to execute distance engagement programs. Without funding we would not have gained such a remarkable success. Our program was brilliantly designed and executed. Any community program needs to be attractive to the very community it serves in order to command a huge space in the life of the that community, this is what WISER has done for the Muhuru Bay community. We had total parent and guardian involvement in the program. They fully embraced and appreciated the WISER Online Learning Program (WOLP). Seeing their daughters constructively engaged in learning the entire time they were at home was greatly appreciated. Most parents even asked us to allow their other children who were enrolled in other schools to join WOLP. 

The entire global WISER community applauds the efforts of Madam Dorcas and the entire WISER school staff! In a time when an estimated 20 million more girls may drop out of Secondary School for good, WISER has continued to engage 94% of its student population. When peer schools have reported upwards of 75% of their female students becoming pregnant during lockdown, WISER has maintained a less than 3% pregnancy rate. Thanks to Dorcas and her incredible team, our students continue to live, learn, and be WISER!

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