Ugandan schools reopened to students on Monday, ending the world’s longest school break due to the COVID-19[female[feminine pandemic.
The reopening has caused traffic jams in parts of the capital, Kampala, and students can be seen carrying their mattresses in the streets, a return to boarding school unprecedented here for nearly two years.
Ugandan schools have been totally or partially closed for more than 83 weeks, the longest interruption in the world, according to figures from the United Nations cultural agency. The closure affected more than 10 million learners.
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The East African country of 44 million people closed its schools for the first time in March 2020, shortly after the first case of the coronavirus was confirmed on the African continent. Some classes were reopened to students in February 2021, but a full lockdown was again imposed in June as the country faced its first major wave.
For many parents, the reopening was long overdue.
“Obviously, we have to open schools,” said Felix Okot, father of a 6-year-old. “The future of our children, the future of our nation, is at stake.”
Schools across the country cannot “wait forever” for the pandemic to end, he warned.
The prolonged school shutdown has proved controversial in a country where measures to stem the spread of the virus have been ignored by many. Skepticism about vaccines, even among health workers, remains a problem, with increasing reports of fake COVID-19 vaccination cards being sold in downtown Kampala.
Many students returning to school reportedly had no help during the lockdown. Most public schools, which serve the vast majority of children in Uganda, were unable to offer virtual schooling. The Associated Press reported in November of students in a remote town in Uganda where weeds grew in classrooms and some students worked in a swamp as gold washers.
Some critics have pointed out that the government of President Yoweri Museveni – an authoritarian who has held power for 36 years and whose wife is education minister – has done little to support home learning. Museveni justified the lockdown by insisting that the infected students were a danger to their parents and others.
“There are a lot of things that cannot be predicted at the moment. Student participation is unpredictable, teacher participation is unpredictable,” said Fagil Mandy, a former government school inspector who now works as an independent consultant. . “I am more worried that many children are going back to school for various reasons, including school fees.”
Mandy also noted that an outbreak of the virus “would spread very quickly” in overcrowded schools, urging school administrators to be closely watched.
Welcoming the reopening of Ugandan schools, Save the Children warned that “the loss of learning could lead to high drop-out rates in the coming weeks without urgent action”, including what he described as catch-up clubs .
The aid group warned in a statement Monday a wave of dropouts “because returning students who have fallen behind in their learning fear they will have no chance of catching up.”
It remains to be seen how long Ugandan schools will remain open, with an alarming increase in cases of the virus in recent days. Over the past week, health officials reported a daily positivity rate of over 10%, down from virtually zero in December. Museveni warned of a possible new lockdown if intensive care units reach 50% occupancy.
In hopes of a smooth return to school, authorities have waived any COVID testing requirements for students. An abbreviated curriculum was also approved as part of an agreement to automatically promote all students to the next class.
Uganda has received foreign support for the reopening of schools.
The United Nations Children’s Agency and the governments of the United Kingdom and Ireland have announced financial support focused on virus surveillance and the mental health of students and teachers in 40,000 schools. They said their support was essential to keep the Ugandan school system open.
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