Uganda Reopens Schools After World’s Longest Covid Shutdown

KAMPALA, Uganda – Uganda reopened its schools on Monday after the world’s longest-running pandemic lockdown, but teachers and others say the shutdown has taken a lasting toll, eroding classroom gains in the East African nation for decades.

A government agency found that despite efforts in distance education, more than half of Uganda’s students actually stopped learning after the government ordered classes to close in March 2020.

And the outlook is not optimistic: As many as a third of students, many of whom have taken jobs during the pandemic to support their struggling families, may not return to the classroom. Thousands of schools are not expected to reopen, themselves under financial pressure. And countless teachers won’t return either, having switched to other businesses after losing their income during the lockdown.

“The damage is just too great,” said Mari Goretti Nakabugo, executive director of OIZO Uganda, a Uganda-based non-profit organization that conducts educational research. Unless there are extensive efforts to help students catch up, she said, “we may have lost a generation.”

Among this generation is 15-year-old Kotara Shadia Napasito, who has given up on her plans to continue her high school education. Although primary education in Uganda is free and intended to be compulsory, secondary education is discretionary and education-based.

“I am a person who wants to study,” said Ms. Napasitu, 15, who started selling juice and braiding hair in the low-income district of Kamokia in Kampala to help her family during the lockdown.

Despite this, Ms. Napacito said it was important to her to “help my mother bear the burdens she is carrying”. Ms. Napacito added that her mother, a vegetable seller, had told her that she would not be able to pay for her high school education.

Ms. Napacito said she missed out on the safety and sense of community that the school provides, a loss her friends felt too. During the pandemic, she said, she has gotten pregnant with some friends and they won’t be going back to school either.

Many countries have closed and closed schools over the past two years, but only six countries – the Bahamas, Belize, Brunei, the Dominican Republic and the Philippines are others – have continued to enforce nationwide closures, according to UNESCO, the United Nations education agency. The scientific and cultural organization.

UNESCO said Uganda’s lockdown, which began shortly after the country’s first Covid cases were discovered, was the longest on record – affecting 10.4 million students – and the duration had been the subject of debate both domestically and internationally.

“Our call during Covid has been for schools to be the last to close and the first to open,” said Robert Jenkins, global director for education at the United Nations Children’s Fund. “In the case of Uganda, the scope and duration were unprecedented.”

Janet Museveni, Uganda’s education minister and wife of President Yoweri Museveni, said the lockdown was in place to reduce the risk of children passing the virus to their parents. The children, she said, “will become orphans – just as HIV/AIDS has done for many families.”

Critics and opposition figures maintain that officials used Covid as an excuse to impose particularly strict lockdown rules aimed at stifling dissent ahead of the January 2021 elections and in the many violent and tense months that followed. They argue that the government is now simply more confident that it is in control, allowing it to turn its attention to reopening the economy.

Although vaccination rates in the overall population are generally low – authorities say most teachers are now being vaccinated, enabling classes to reopen. However, the reopening – bars and concert venues will follow in two weeks – comes amid a fourth wave of the pandemic that has led to a 200 percent increase in cases over the past 14 days.

“We believe this time around, Covid will not scare us,” Joyce Moreko Kadoku, Minister of State for Primary Education, said in an interview. She opposed any notion of sacrificing the education of young people.

“I don’t accept that there is a lost generation,” said Dr. Kadoku. “What I agree with is that a percentage of our kids got pregnant, little boys got into the money-making economy and others got into things. That doesn’t mean we lost the whole generation.”

However, the government’s own data shows that the nearly two-year interruption in classroom lessons has taken a heavy toll on students, particularly students from poor and rural communities.

Education officials have provided remote lessons via television, radio, and the Internet, but many families do not have ready access to electronic devices or electricity and are led by parents with limited education themselves, hampering their ability to help their children.

As a result, 51 percent of students stopped learning when schools closed, according to a report by the National Planning Commission, a government agency, and a third of them may not return to the classroom now.

Many teachers will not return either

Arihu Ambrose, 29, teaches math and science at an elementary school in Wakiso District, Uganda’s Central District, and makes $110 a month.

But after the outbreak of the epidemic, he received only one month’s salary, which prompted him to find an alternative to support his wife and two children. He finally got a job at a telecom company, where he says he works fewer hours and gets paid more, up to $180 a month.

Although the school wanted him to come back, he refused. “I will miss educating the children,” he said.

Some students and teachers who aim to return may not find their schools open. The National Planning Agency said 3,507 primary schools and 832 secondary schools across the country may not reopen on Monday and are likely to remain closed permanently. Uganda has a mixture of public schools and private schools owned by individuals or religious organizations.

Teachers say the closures 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 effort, funded by donors, has raised enrollment rates, teacher recruitment, and to build schools.

St. Divine Community Nursery in Kampala, which previously had 220 students and eight teachers, is among those that will not open. Its owner, Joshua Tuinamatseko, had to close the school after six months of closure because he could not afford the $425 monthly rent. He said he lost an investment of about $8,500.

“It has been a challenge for me to see all my efforts and money go to waste,” Mr. Tuinamtseko said in an interview.

Now, after nearly two years of caution, the government is pressing to get as many students as possible back to school. The authorities enlisted village elders and church leaders to encourage families to re-register their children. Covid test for students is not required Back in the classroom, Ms. Museveni, the education minister, warned school officials not to charge exorbitant tuition or fees.

Mr Museveni, the president, said some of the reopening measures could be reversed, if the health care system becomes overwhelmed.

David Atwin, 15, hopes that won’t be the case. Masks started selling on the streets of Kampala after the lockdown was imposed, bringing in $5 on a good day. But he said no amount of money would stop him from pursuing the education he deemed necessary to success.

“I should go back to school and study,” he said.

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