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

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

Schoolchildren’s songs resonate again at Great Junior School in the popular Nsambya district of Kampala, Uganda. But, in the classrooms, the wooden benches are still half empty. Before the closure of schools, decided almost two years ago due to the Covid-19 epidemic, some 400 students were enrolled in this private school. Since it reopened, Monday January 10, “Only 72 children have returned, but we are expecting new registrations in the coming weeks”, explains Joshua Bufamengo, one of the teachers.

According to Dennis Mugimba, spokesperson for the Ministry of Education and Sports, it is still too early to know the real dropout rate after eighty-three weeks without school. “This long closure was necessary, he justifies. After a first confinement in March 2020, we tried to reopen certain end-of-cycle classes in October of the same year, but they had closed quickly because of the pandemic. “

This time, he ensures that everything is ready, with 73% of teachers having received at least one dose of vaccine, and the establishment of new health and support protocols for children for their return to school.

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However, the authorities estimate that 30% of the 15 million students will not return to class. “During the confinement, many cases of teenage pregnancies were recorded, some adolescents began to work. These profiles will not go back to school ”, details Saphina Nakulima, in charge of the education sector for the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER), a Ugandan social and economic rights organization.

In Uganda, more than 650,000 teenage pregnancies were recorded between the start of 2020 and September 2021, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

Rising tuition fees

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

“I am a teacher and I cannot even enroll my children in school, she laments. In total, for one child in primary and the other in secondary, I would have to pay around $ 200 [174 euros] per quarter, but I have lost all my savings since the start of the pandemic. “

With two lockdowns and numerous travel restrictions, Uganda is one of the African countries that has imposed the strictest measures to contain the Covid-19 epidemic. These have severely affected the population: since the start of the pandemic, 1.3 million people have fallen below the poverty line, set at $ 1.90 per day, adding to the 8 million Ugandans already living in extreme poverty.

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“With an average of five children per woman, paying school fees for the whole family is impossible for more and more households, especially since these fees have increased in many schools at the start of the school year”, affirme Saphina Nakulima.

At the Great Junior School in Nsambya, for example, a term now costs more than $ 50, compared to $ 35 before the first confinement. “Otherwise, we would not have been able to reopen, explains Professor Joshua Bufamengo. For two years, we had to maintain and renovate the premises, pay our loans, all without any income or government assistance. “

In Uganda, one in three students attend private primary school, and even more than two in three at secondary level. But unable to match the new prices, many parents in the city are now turning to public institutions, such as the primary school in the Makerere district. In the playground, a hundred students in white T-shirts, yellow skirts and shorts advance in single file, their faces masked. The teachers take their temperature before allowing them to enter the newly painted buildings.

“They almost forgot how to write”

If the numbers are not yet complete, the director of the Makerere school, Juliet Nabirye, has already received many children previously enrolled in the private sector. Her establishment does not charge a registration fee, but you do have to pay for lunch and some activities, about $ 20 per term. Nevertheless, “Many parents have great difficulty in meeting these expenses, which are much lower than in the private sector”, says the director.

Among the new arrivals, Rebecca Sanaa’s two children discover their new school. “I am a seamstress and, with the crisis, many customers have not placed orders for two years, she says. It is therefore impossible, this year, to pay for another school. ” Without the Internet and television, her children could not take distance learning lessons while classes were closed.

“Result: they almost forgot how to write”, she laments. The first days confirmed the fears of many teachers. “Many children have not received any form of education for almost two years, deplores Joshua Bufamengo. We have to start almost from scratch with some and get back to the basics of writing and reading. “

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Despite everything, at the start of the new school year, according to the directives of the Ministry of Education, each student automatically moves to a higher class. “We have therefore decided to extend by two weeks every quarter this yearsays Dennis Mugimba. We have also provided a condensed program of each level, so that teachers can organize remedial sessions during the first few weeks. “

But, for Saphina Nakulima, these programs will not be enough to fill the gaps of the most disadvantaged pupils, in a country where only one person in two has access to the Internet. “The inequalities between the wealthiest classes, whose children continued their lessons on the Web or with private teachers, and the lower classes, vulnerable during the crisis and more at risk of dropping out of school, will further increase”, she worries.