For years to come, more than 15 million school children in Uganda will be playing catch up to their peers in the region, after 18 months of lockdown – and still counting – during which access to learning has been minimal if not nonexistent.
As such, the government is under pressure to reopen schools, first, on academic grounds, but also bearing in mind the economic consequences of long closures on the sector as owners of private schools are on the verge of having their properties auctioned to pay bank loans.
Some form of teaching and learning is taking place in high-end private and public schools, where parents can afford the cost of equipment, infrastructure and Wi-Fi, to have their children learn online.
But many public schools which enroll children from poor families remain closed, and studies of government’s efforts to distribute printed learning materials for this category show that only 20 percent of households received these provisions.
Experts now say the education sector is in a crisis as players individually determine how to teach and access learning, which has spawned and widened inequality, with majority of school children totally shut out of any form of studying.
“Digital learning is okay, but we were not ready for it. In the private sector we tend to be faster than the government – albeit haphazardly. We took it as private schools as an intervention to bridge the learning gap, but how far can it go?” says Asadu Kirabira, Chairman of National Private Education Institutions Association.
Other educationists say delayed reopening will plunge the sector into a deeper human resource crisis.
“Long closure is a crisis at different levels,” says Dr Mary Goretti Nakabugo, executive director of Uwezo Uganda, a not-for-profit organisation that works to promote equitable quality education.
“Teachers have quit and gone into other trades. So when you reopen, you are going to face a crisis of shortage of teaching staff. And then you have a crisis of children who have dropped out of school,” she adds.
Sufficient vaccination goal
But the government – which has pegged reopening of education institutions on all teachers and children aged 12 and above getting the Covid-19 jab – remains adamant.
“Schools will remain closed until sufficient vaccination of the eligible population and children aged 12-18 years old has taken shape,” said President Yoweri Museveni in his July 31 address to the nation.
However, the experts argue that these vaccination targets cannot be attained soon, because the children are wasting away.
“You are talking about loss of a generation, loss of a future of the country,” says Dr Nakabugo. “We are losing a generation if nothing is done immediately. We are looking at a crisis, and it has to be acted on now,” she adds.
In March 2020, amidst the fear of the Covid-19 pandemic that was devastating most of the developed world and spreading fast into Africa, President Museveni imposed a total lockdown that saw all education institutions closed immediately.
The decision sent home 15.1 million school-going children at all levels, and for the majority, the status quo has remained for public schools, 18 months later; with pre-primary pupils and those in primary one to three, having not had any form of learning during that period.
President Museveni then floated a proposal to buy radio and television sets to help in learning during the lockdown but this fell through after parliament failed to appropriate money for these items, the Director of Education Standards at the Ministry of Education Dr Kedrace Turyagyenda said.
She admitted that the ministry is aware that some schools are conducting classes online, which not many parents can afford, but added that “all these are things we are still grappling with” to see how to address gaps to accessing learning in the lockdown.
“At the start, only higher institutions were allowed to study online to finish courses. But later we realised the lower schools had also started,” Dr Turyagyenda said.
Dr Turyagyenda explains that the proposal to teach/learn via radio was “a stopgap measure,” because the government did not anticipate that there would be a second shutdown of schools.
With limited online learning, no radio and television sets, and the reopening still unclear, Dr Nakabugo argues that Uganda is lost in the dark, instead of borrowing a leaf from its peers in the region, and it will take some work for Ugandan children to catch up.
Reaction by neighbours
Kenya reopened schools in January while Tanzania never closed for prolonged periods.
South Sudan also reopened in May after a 14-month lockdown while Burundi schools have been open since the start of 2021. In the East African Community region, the only country that closed schools again was Rwanda after a spike in Covid-19 infections in June.
“Let’s look at the neighbours,” Dr Nakabugo said “Kenya reopened, Tanzania never closed at all. Was there death in tens of thousands due to Covid? No. We need to accept that when we reopen we are going to have cases, but that doesn’t mean we shut down the whole system. Test, isolate. That’s the way to do it.”
The impact of long school closures has been felt all round, but particularly among proprietors of private schools who took bank loans to set up learning infrastructure and are now facing financial headwinds.
Meanwhile, another peculiar crisis obtains: Uganda has two sets of students in form one and form five classes at secondary school, and no candidate classes.
In her draft plan to the education committie, First Lady and Education Minister Janet Museveni proposes automatic promotion for these students, a proposal educationists say is not tenable as it will create a generation with a knowledge gaps.
“Automatic promotion in this case is not an option on our table. These children have to study, finish the syllabus and be examined to be sure they have learnt something,” argues Mr Kirabira.
“We have to compress the syllabus and refocus it on what it is we want these children to know, what competences we want them to have, to ensure that learning is fast-tracked because it is not business as usual,” says Dr Nakabugo.