KAMPALA, Uganda – Uganda reopened schools on Monday after the world’s longest pandemic shutdown, but educators and others say the shutdown has taken its toll, eroding decades of classroom gains in that country from East Africa.
Despite distance education efforts, more than half of Ugandan students have effectively stopped learning after the government ordered classrooms closed in March 2020, a government agency has found.
And the outlook is not optimistic: Up to a third of students, many of whom took up jobs during the pandemic to support their struggling families, may not return to class. Thousands of schools, themselves in financial difficulty, should not reopen their doors. And countless teachers will not return either, having turned to other work after losing their income during the shutdown.
“The damage is extremely severe,” said Mary Goretti Nakabugo, executive director of Uwezo Uganda, a Uganda-based non-profit organization that conducts educational research. Unless intensive efforts were made to help students catch up, she said, “we might have lost a generation.”
Among this generation is 15-year-old Kauthara Shadiah Nabasitu, who abandoned his plans to continue his studies in high school. Although primary education in Uganda is free and meant to be compulsory, secondary education is discretionary and based on tuition fees.
“I’m a person who wants to study,” said Ms. Nabasitu, 15, who started selling juice and braided hair in the low-income Kamwokya neighborhood of Kampala to help her family during the shutdown.
It was, however, important, Ms. Nabasitu said, that she “help my mother with the burdens she carries”. Her mother, a vegetable vendor, told her that she would not be able to afford her high school education, Ms. Nabasitu added.
Ms Nabasitu said she missed the safety and sense of community offered by the school, a loss felt by her friends as well. During the pandemic, she said, some friends got pregnant and won’t be going back to school either.
Many countries have closed schools intermittently over the past two years, but only six countries – the Bahamas, Belize, Brunei, the Dominican Republic and the Philippines are the rest – have continued to impose nationwide closures, according to UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Uganda’s shutdown, instituted shortly after the country’s first cases of Covid were detected, has been the longest of all – affecting 10.4 million students – and the length has been debated , nationally and internationally.
“Our call during Covid has been that schools should be the last to close and the first to open,” said Robert Jenkins, global director of education at the United Nations Children’s Fund. “In the case of Uganda, the scale and duration have been unprecedented. “
Janet Museveni, Ugandan Minister of Education and wife of President Yoweri Museveni, said the shutdown was introduced to brake the risk of children passing the virus on to their parents. Children, she said, “would become orphans, just as HIV / AIDS has done for many families.”
Critics and opposition figures argue officials used Covid as a pretext to impose in particular strict locking rules intended to quell dissent ahead of the January 2021 election and in the many violent and tense months that followed. The government is now simply more confident in its control, they say, allowing it to focus on reopening the economy.
Although vaccination rates in the total population are low overall – a single digit percentage – authorities say most teachers are now vaccinated, allowing them to reopen classrooms. Yet the reopening – bars and music venues to follow in two weeks – comes amid a fourth wave of the pandemic that has resulted in an almost 200% increase in cases over the past 14 days.
“We believe that this time, Covid will not scare us,” Joyce Moriku Kaducu, Minister of State for Primary Education, said in an interview. She challenged any idea that the education of young people had been sacrificed.
“I do not accept that there is a lost generation,” said Dr Kaducu. “What I agree on is that there is a percentage of our children who have gotten pregnant, young boys have entered the lucrative economy and others have gotten into things. It does not mean that we have completely lost the generation.
Yet even the government’s own data shows that the nearly two-year hiatus in classroom lessons has taken a heavy toll on students, especially those in poor and rural communities.
Education officials have introduced distance learning via television, radio and the Internet, but many households do not have easy access to electronics or electricity and are run by parents who are themselves poorly educated. , which hinders their ability to help their children.
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As a result, 51 percent of students stopped learning when schools closed, according to a report from the National Planning Authority, a government agency, and up to a third may not return to class now.
Lots of teachers won’t be coming back either.
Ariiho Ambrose, 29, taught math and science at a primary school in Wakiso district in central Uganda, earning $ 110 a month.
But after the pandemic, he received only one month’s salary, pushing him to find an alternative to support his wife and two children. He eventually landed a job with a telecommunications company, where he says he works fewer hours and gets better paid, up to $ 180 a month.
Although the school wanted him to come back, he refused. “I’m going to miss teaching the kids,” he said.
Some students and teachers who wish to return may not find their schools open. The national planning agency said 3,507 elementary schools and 832 high schools nationwide may not reopen on Monday and will likely remain closed permanently. Uganda has a mix of government-run schools and private schools owned by individuals or religious organizations.
The closures, say educators, threaten to undo decades of educational progress in Uganda, which was one of the first African countries to offer free primary education, in 1997. The donor-funded effort has helped ” increase enrollment, recruit teachers and build schools.
St. Divine Community Kindergarten in Kampala, which once had 220 students and eight teachers, is among those that will not reopen. Its landlord, Joshua Twinamatsiko, had to close the school six months after it closed because he couldn’t pay the monthly rent of $ 425. He lost an investment of about $ 8,500, he said.
“It has been a challenge for me to see all my effort and my money wasted,” Mr. Twinamatsiko said in an interview.
Today, after nearly two years of caution, the government is pushing to bring as many students as possible back to school. Authorities have enlisted village elders and religious leaders to encourage families to re-enroll their children. The students’ Covid test is not required to return to class, and Ms. Museveni, the Minister of Education, warned school officials not to impose tuition fees or excessive fees.
Some reopening measures could be reversedPresident Museveni said if the health system is overwhelmed.
15-year-old David Atwiine hopes this will not be the case. He started selling masks on the streets of Kampala after the shutdown was imposed, earning $ 5 on a good day. But no amount of money, he said, will stop him from pursuing the education he sees as necessary for success.
“I have to go back to school and study,” he said.