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Schools to open or not to open

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June 22 should have seen the re-opening of schools across the country for the start of the second term if a program announced by the Minister of Education and Sports, First Lady Janet Museveni, was being followed. But schools are not opening. Instead, the whole education sector is under a cloud of uncertainty with the government seems unable to offer direction on how to safely re-open schools after a three-month COVID-19 imposed lockdown.

The three months during which schools have been shut should have enabled the government work so fast to come up with mechanisms of ensuring that schools reopen even with the pandemic,” says Nicholas Ssewajje, an English language and literature teacher, “The indecision and uncertainty surrounding the reopening of schools has just exposed the government’s weakness which it cannot defend anymore.”

The confusion has left the fate of 15 million learners and 500,000 teachers in Uganda hanging.

President Museveni recently said some parents have petitioned him not to reopen schools saying it will be difficult to observe measures that stop the spread of coronavirus. Researchers from Makerere University’s School of Natural Sciences on June 16 also warned the government against reopening. They want a total lockdown until October.

Earlier, on June 11, MPs on the National Economy Committee of Parliament said in a meeting with members of the Uganda Vice-Chancellors’ Forum that they want the government to declare the 2020 academic year “a dead year for education.”

They argued that with a whole three months of First Term lost since schools were locked down in March, it is impossible for the learners to complete the syllabus. They also knocked down a proposal by President Museveni to allow final year students in Primary Seven, Senior Four, Senior Six, and tertiary institutions to complete their courses.

“Allowing candidate classes to resume and sit for examinations will clog the entire system since non-candidates will not have progressed to the next classes,” said Kassiano Wadri, the MP for Arua Municipality in northwestern Uganda.

“Forget about education this year and resume next year after adequate planning,” said Elijah Okupa, the MP for Kasilo County in eastern Uganda.

The Chairperson of the Committee, the Nakaseke North MP, Syda Bbumba, reminded everyone that schools and the hostels in which some students live are ranked as high-risk areas, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on the spread of the coronavirus disease.

“The hostels and classrooms are too crowded to apply social distancing,” said Aswa County MP Reagan Okumu. Renowned Ugandan educationist, Fagil Mandy, possibly captured best the sentiment of those against the reopening of schools.

“Dead people do not sit examinations,” he is quoted to have said recently, “You would rather stay at home and repeat the year.”

But others say stopping the academic year is unrealistic since nobody knows when the COVID-19 pandemic will end. They want the government to adopt means of living with the pandemic.

On June 15, the Minister of State for Higher Education, John Chrysostom Muyingo, announced that cabinet had resolved to reopen 100 tertiary institutions and 50 universities.

“These are easier to manage without breaching Covid-19 measures relating to physical distancing requirements because they have fewer student numbers compared to Primary and Secondary schools.” He said the government has thrown out the original proposal to reopen candidate classes only because “it is not workable and would affect the entire school promotion system.”

“What happens to children in S1 who remain unpromoted having had a dead year yet those of P7 went on to sit their examinations and were ready to enroll for Senior One? The same applies to S4 and even S6,” he said, “Since that puzzle can’t be resolved, the plan to reopen candidates’ classes only is permanently off the table.”

It is significant that the minister did not say when the tertiary institutions and universities would reopen. And his statement appeared to fuel more uncertainty since the government positions appeared to be shifting with every meeting.

Just four days earlier, another cabinet meeting had resolved to keep all educational institutions shut. At that point, the government said it would buy 10 million radio sets for households and 137,466 solar-enabled TV sets for the 68,000 villages to enable long-distance audio and visual learning of children at the pre-university level who are locked at home.

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