KAMPALA, Uganda — Uganda reopened its schools on Monday after the longest pandemic-prompted shutdown in the world, but educators and others say that the closing has taken a lasting toll, eroding decades of classroom gains in the East African nation.
Despite efforts at remote education, more than half of Uganda’s students effectively stopped learning after the government ordered classrooms closed in March 2020, a government agency has found.
The outlook is not positive: Up to a quarter of students may not return to school, many of them having taken jobs during the pandemic in order to support their families. Many schools, already under financial stress, won’t reopen their doors. Many teachers who lost their income during the shutdown will not be returning to work, or have turned to other jobs, won’t either.
“The damage is extremely big,” said Mary Goretti Nakabugo, the executive director of Uwezo Uganda, a Uganda-based nonprofit that conducts educational research. Unless there are intensive efforts to help students catch up, she said, “we may have lost a generation.”
Kauthara Shadiah Nbasitu (15), is one of those who has given up on her high school education. While elementary education in Uganda, which is compulsory, is free and is compulsory by law, high school education is optional and tuition-based.
“I am a person who wants to study,” said Ms. Nabasitu, 15, who started selling juice and braiding hair in the low-income Kamwokya neighborhood of Kampala to help her family during the shutdown.
It was important, though, Ms. Nabasitu said, for her to “help my mom with the burdens that she carries.” Her mother, a vegetable seller, told her that she would not be able to pay for her high school education, Ms. Nabasitu added.
Ms. Nabasitu stated that she had lost the sense of safety and community that school provided, something that was felt by her friends. During the pandemic, she said, some friends became pregnant and won’t return to school either.
Many countries closed schools on and off over the past two years, but only six nations — the Bahamas, Belize, Brunei, the Dominican Republic and the Philippines are the others — have continued to impose nationwide closures, according to UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Uganda’s shutdown, instituted shortly after the first Covid cases were detected in the country, was the longest of all, UNESCO said — affecting 10.4 million students — and the duration has been the subject of debate, domestically 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 the duration have been unprecedented.”
Janet Museveni (the Ugandan minister for education and the wife President Yoweri Museveni) stated that the shutdown was in place to reduce the risk of children spreading the virus among their parents. The children, she said, “would become orphans — just like H.I.V./AIDS did to many of the families.”
Critics and opponents claim that officials used Covid as a pretext for imposing strict lockdown rules in order to suppress dissent prior to the January 2021 election and the many violent and tense months following. They argue that the government is more confident in its control now, which allows it to focus on reopening economy.
Although vaccination rates in the total population are low overall — single digits percentage-wise — the authorities say that most teachers are now inoculated, which enables them to reopen classrooms. Still, the reopening — bars and concerts venues will follow in two weeks — comes amid a fourth wave of the pandemic that has led to a nearly 200 percent rise in cases over the past 14 days.
“We believe this time Covid will not scare us,” Joyce Moriku Kaducu, the state minister for primary education, said in an interview. She disputed any notion that young people’s education had been sacrificed.
“I don’t accept that there is a lost generation,” Dr. Kaducu said. “What I agree to is there’s a percentage of our children who have gotten pregnant, the young boys have gotten into the moneymaking economy and others have gone into things. That does not mean that we have lost the generation completely.”
Still, even the government’s own data shows that the nearly two-year interruption in classroom lessons took a heavy toll on students, particularly those from poor and rural communities.
Education officials introduced remote lessons via television, radio, and the Internet. However, many households do not have access to electronic devices or electricity and are led often by parents with limited education. This hinders their ability help their children.
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According to a report by The National Planning Authority (a government agency), 51 percent of students stopped learning after schools closed. A third of them may not return to school now.
Many teachers won’t come back.
Ariiho Ambrose (29), taught science and mathematics at an elementary school in Wakiso, Central Region of Uganda. She earned $110 per month.
But after the pandemic hit, he was paid only a month’s salary, pushing him to find an alternative to support his wife and two children. He eventually found a job at a telecommunications firm, where he claims he works less and is paid more, as much as $180 per month.
He has declined to return to school, even though he was asked by the school. “I will miss teaching children,” he said.
Teachers and students who want to return to school might not find their schools open. According to the national planning agency, nationwide 3,507 elementary schools and 832 high schools might not reopen Monday. They are likely to remain closed permanently. Uganda has both government-run schools as well as private schools owned by individuals or religious groups.
Teachers fear that the closings will reverse decades of education progress in Uganda, one of the first African countries to provide free elementary school education in 1997. This effort, funded by donors raised enrollment and recruited teachers, which led to the construction schools.
The St. Divine Community Nursery School, Kampala, once had 220 students and eight educators, will not reopen. Its owner, Joshua Twinamatsiko, had to close the school six months after the shutdown because he couldn’t afford the $425 monthly rent. He said that he lost $8,500 in investment.
“It has been challenging for me to see all my efforts and money go to waste,” Mr. Twinamatsiko said in an interview.
After almost two years of caution the government is now determined to get as many students to school as possible. To encourage families to re-enroll their children, the authorities have called upon church leaders and elders from villages. Students are subject to covid testing not requiredMs. Museveni, education minister, advised school officials not to charge excessive tuition or fees in order to allow them to return to school.
The president said that some of the reopening actions could be reversed if the health system becomes overwhelmed.
David Atwiine (15 years old) hopes that this will not be the case. After the shutdown, Atwiine began selling masks in Kampala’s streets. He made $5 per day. He stated that no amount will stop him seeking the education he feels is necessary to succeed.
“I must return to school and study,” he said.
Source: NY Times