Uganda reopens schools after world’s longest COVID-19 lockdown

Uganda reopened its schools on Monday after Longest lockdown due to pandemic Around the world, but teachers and others say the lockdown has taken a lasting toll, eroding decades of achievement in classrooms in the East African country.

A government agency found that despite efforts in distance education, more than half of Ugandan students 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 help struggling families, may not return to the classroom. Thousands of schools, which are under financial strain, are not expected to reopen. And countless teachers won’t return either, having switched to another job 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, he said, “we may have lost a generation.”

Among this generation is Kothara Shadia Napasitu, 15, 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 is paid for through education.

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

Still, Napasito said it’s important to “help my mom bear the burdens she is carrying.” Napacito added that her mother, a vegetable seller, told her she could not afford her high school education.

Napasito said she missed out on the safety and sense of community that the school offered, 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.

Several countries have closed schools intermittently in 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.

UNESCO said Uganda’s lockdown, which was imposed shortly after the country’s first cases of Covid were discovered, was the longest on record, affecting 10.4 million students, and the duration was a matter of debate both nationally and internationally.

“Our call during Covid has been that schools must be the last to close and the first to open,” said Robert Jenkins, UNICEF Global Director of Education. “In the case of Uganda, the scale and duration are unprecedented.”

Janet Museveni, Uganda’s Minister of Education and wife of President Yoweri Museveni, said the lockdown was to reduce the risk of children passing the virus to their parents. The children, he said, “will become orphans just as HIV/AIDS has done to many families.”

Critics and opposition figures claim that officials used Covid as an excuse to impose particularly stringent 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 focus its attention on reopening the economy.

Although vaccination rates in the overall population are generally low, officials say most teachers are now vaccinated, allowing classrooms to reopen. However, the reopening – bars and concert halls to follow in two weeks – comes amid a fourth wave of the pandemic that has led to a nearly 200% rise in cases in the past 14 days.

“We believe that this time Covid will not frighten us,” said Joyce Moreko Kadoku, Minister of State for Primary Education.

“I don’t accept that there is a lost generation,” Kadoku said. “What I agree with is that a percentage of our children got pregnant, young people got involved in the for-profit economy and others got involved. It doesn’t mean we lost the whole generation.”

However, the government’s own data shows that the nearly two-year break in the semester took a heavy toll on students, especially students from poor and rural communities.

Education officials have introduced remote lessons via television, radio, and the Internet, but many homes do not have immediate access to electronics or electricity, and are run by parents with limited education, hampering their ability to help their children.

As a result, 51% of students stopped learning when schools closed, according to a report from 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, central Uganda, and earns $110 a month.

But after the outbreak of the epidemic, he only received one month’s salary, which prompted him to search for an alternative to support his wife and two children. He eventually landed 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 aspire 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.

Educators say the closures threaten to undo decades of educational progress in Uganda, which was one of the first African countries to introduce free primary education in 1997. This donor-funded effort has increased school enrollment rates, teacher recruitment and led to the construction of schools.

St. Divine Community Nursery in Kampala, which had 220 students and eight teachers, is among those that have not reopened. Its owner, Joshua Tuinamatseko, was forced to close the school six months after it closed because he could not pay the $425 monthly rent and lost an investment of about $8,500, he said.

“It was a challenge for me to see all my efforts and money go to waste,” said Tuinamtseko.

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. Students are not required to take a Covid test to return to the classroom, and Museveni, the education minister, has warned school officials against charging exorbitant tuition or fees.

Museveni, the president, said some of the reopening measures could be undone if the health care system is overwhelmed.

David Atwiine, 15, hopes that’s not the case. He started selling masks on the streets of Kampala after the lockdown was imposed, earning $5 on a good day. But he said no amount of money would stop him from pursuing the education he felt was essential to success.

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

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