In Uganda, the world’s longest school closure has left its mark

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A teacher greets students on the day schools reopen, in Kampala, Uganda, January 10, 2022.

At the Great Junior School in the popular Nsambya district of Kampala, Uganda, schoolchildren’s songs are heard again. But in the classrooms the wooden benches are still half empty. Before the closure of the schools, which was decided almost two years ago due to the Covid-19 epidemic, about 400 students were registered at this private school. Since the reopening on Monday 10 January, “only 72 children have returned, but we expect new applications in the coming weeks”explains Joshua Bufamengo, one of the teachers.

According to Dennis Mugimba, spokesperson for the Ministry of Education and Sports, after eighty-three weeks without school, it is still too early to know the actual dropout. “This long closure was necessaryhe justifies. After an initial lockdown in March 2020, we had attempted to reopen certain classes at the end of the cycle in October of the same year, but they were quickly closed due to the pandemic. †

This time, he’s making sure everything is ready, with 73% of teachers receiving at least one dose of vaccine and implementing new health and support protocols for children upon their return to school.

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However, the authorities estimate that 30% of the 15 million students will not return to the classroom. “During labor, many cases of early pregnancies were recorded, some teenagers started working. These profiles will no longer be returned to school.explains Saphina Nakulima, responsible for the education sector for the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER), a Ugandan social and economic rights organization.

More than 650,000 teenage pregnancies were registered in Uganda between early 2020 and September 2021, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

Rising tuition fees

“But the economic crisis is the main reason for school dropout: many parents can no longer afford school fees”, continues Saphina Nakulima. This is the case of Lillian Muwereza: a teacher in a private kindergarten, this mother of two has not received a salary for almost two years and survives thanks to some household chores in her neighborhood.

“I’m a teacher and I can’t even enroll my kids in schoolshe complains. In total I would have to pay about $200 for one child in primary and the other in secondary [174 euros] quarterly, but I’ve lost all my savings since the start of the pandemic. †

With two lockdowns and numerous travel restrictions, Uganda is one of the countries in Africa that has imposed the strictest measures to contain the Covid-19 epidemic. These have hit the population hard: Since the start of the pandemic, 1.3 million people have fallen below the poverty line, set at $1.90 a day, on top of the 8 million Ugandans already living in extreme poverty.

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“With an average of five children per woman, it is becoming impossible for more and more households to pay the school fees for the whole family, especially as these costs have risen in many schools at the start of the new school year,” says Saphina Nakulima.

For example, at the Great Junior School in Nsambya, a semester now costs more than $50, compared to $35 for the first incarceration. “Otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to reopenexplains Professor Joshua Bufamengo. For two years we had to maintain and renovate the property, pay off our loans, all with no income or help from the government. †

In Uganda, one in three primary school pupils receive private education and even more than two in three receive secondary education. But unable to match the new rates, many parents in the city are now turning to public institutions, such as the Elementary School in the Makerere district. On the playground, a hundred students in white T-shirts, skirts and yellow shorts come out in a row, their faces hidden. The teachers take their temperatures before letting in the newly painted buildings.

“They almost forgot how to write”

If the figures are not yet complete, the director of the Makerere school, Juliet Nabirye, has already received many children who were previously enrolled in the private sector. His establishment doesn’t charge a registration fee, but you have to pay for lunch and some activities, or about $20 a quarter. Anyway, “many parents have great difficulty covering these costs, which are much lower than in the private sector”says the director.

Among the newcomers are Rebecca Sanaa’s two children discover their new school. “I am a seamstress and due to the crisis many customers have not placed orders for two yearsshe says. It is therefore impossible this year to pay for another school. † Without the internet or television, her children could not attend distance learning classes while classes were closed.

“Result: They almost forgot how to write”she complains. The first days confirmed the fears of many teachers. “Many children have not received any form of education for almost two yearsregrets Joshua Bufamengo. With some, we have to start almost from scratch and go back to the basics of writing and reading. †

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Despite everything, in this new school year, according to the guidelines of the Ministry of Education, every student automatically moves to the next class. “We have therefore decided to extend every quarter by two weeks this yearsays Dennis Mugimba. We have also provided a concise program for each level, so that teachers can organize catch-up sessions during the first weeks. †

But for Saphina Nakulima, these programs will not be enough to fill the gaps for the most disadvantaged students, in a country where only one in two people has access to the internet. “The inequalities between the wealthiest classes, whose children have continued their lessons on the internet or with private tutors, and the working classes, who are vulnerable during the crisis and more at risk of dropping out of school, will increase further.” she’s concerned.

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