NAIROBI, Kenya (CNS) — Some Catholic church leaders in Kenya are proposing church spaces as possible classrooms to replace “classrooms” for children outdoors, under trees.

Most Kenyan schools fully opened to in-person learning Jan. 4 after nearly nine months of closure because of the pandemic, despite some fears about the safety of the nearly 15 million children enrolled in classwork nationwide.

Schools are facing a slew of new challenges, including too-small classrooms to keep students sufficiently separated, ensuring students wear face masks, a lack of water and shortages of soap for hand-washing. Ministry of Education officials, however, urged innovation to ensure that learning resumes.

That has led some teachers, who have promoted tree planting to better school environments and mitigate climate change, to teach classes in the shade of trees.

“I think it is a temporary measure. The ministry is not condemning the children to learn under trees forever,” Father Henry Ndune, education secretary at the Archdiocese of Mombasa, told Catholic News Service soon after schools reopened. “It is not the first time classes are being held under trees. In the humble beginning of Kenya’s education, early missionaries taught under them.”

Father Ndune said conducting classes under the trees that offer protection from the sun is preferable to extending children’s stay at home with no access to learning.

By Jan. 27, the number of coronavirus cases in Kenya had surpassed 100,000, with 1,750 deaths in a country of 52.6 million. Public health officials have tallied 36 teacher deaths, while another 145 continued to seek treatment for symptoms of the coronavirus. It is unclear how many school children overall have contracted COVID-19 and how many have died.

“We cannot allow the children to continue staying at home. … We have to cover the time lost,” Father Ndune said.

Kenya’s school closures have been one of the longest in Africa. It is the last country to reopen schools in East Africa.

Because of the prolonged closure, the World Health Organization and UNICEF in 2020 warned of the increased risk of teen pregnancies, poor nutrition and permanent school dropout for children in poorer countries.

A national survey by the Kenya Health Information Systems discovered that more than 150,000 girls ages 10-19 had become pregnant from January to May last year.

Even so, as images of classes under trees emerged, a debate triggered in the country whether the Ministry of Education was ready for the full opening.

“It is not ideal. The children cannot be learning under trees at a time like this. What happens in bad weather?” asked Apostle of Jesus Father Joachim Omollo Ouko, in the Archdiocese of Kisumu. “I think a lot needed to be done. They could have opened the schools step by step and when there are enough classrooms.”

Kenya’s Catholic bishops recently joined other church leaders in calling on the government to ensure that schools are ready and safe for children to learn without being exposed to the virus.

“It is worth noting that public schools were already crowded before the pandemic struck, and this is expected to worsen following closure of many private schools,” said Bishop John Oballa Owaa of Ngong in a joint statement with the National Council of Churches of Kenya.

“Where necessary, the Ministry of Education can engage religious institutions to avail facilities to be used to achieve social distancing,” Bishop Oballa said.

Father Ndune said in remote areas where classes in churches do not interrupt Mass or do not profane sacred space, churches can be turned into classrooms.

“We have, in the past, been challenged to host people inside churches during emergencies. The people have slept next to the tabernacle,” he said. “I would not mind bringing in two classes in a church of 1,000, if they do not profane the place or obstruct Mass. This is appropriate in remote parishes where there is a chapel, but not the basilicas.”

The National Council of Churches of Kenya has called for greater investment in education infrastructure, including the delivery of desks the government procured in 2020 and the construction of more classrooms.

“We call upon school administrators to allow learners whose lives were disrupted during the pandemic, especially girls who got pregnant or were dragged into early marriages, to resume learning,” the Rev. Chris Kinyanjui, the council’s general secretary, said.