The world’s longest school shutdown is over, but nothing is back to normal

On 10 January, students returned to classrooms in Uganda. It was the first time learners had been allowed to attend school in person in nearly two years, thanks to President Yoweri Museveni’s decision to shut schools down during the pandemic – the longest Covid-19-related school shutdown in the world.

Two days later, some parents received a notice. “I regret to inform you that business at East High School, Ntinda, has been put to a halt.”

The toll of losing two years of income had crippled this private school in northeast Kampala. The last straw, the notice said, was low learners turnout on reopening.

East High School was not alone. Uganda’s national planning authority has estimated that more than 4 300 private schools for low-income students entered financial distress during the shutdown. As many as 30% of their pupils might not return, the authority said. Some, it said, had become child labourers; others became pregnant. And many parents, themselves impoverished by pandemic work restrictions, could no longer afford school fees.

These private schools all face closure unless the government comes to the rescue. And although public schools remain open, the pandemic shutdown has exacted a heavy toll.

Uganda has about 13 400 tuition-free public schools but their academic standards are considered to be abysmal at best. Many parents, even of modest means, choose to pay out of pocket and send their children to the better-managed private schools. According to the planning authority, about 1.92-million of Uganda’s 15-million schoolchildren were attending low-income private schools when the pandemic hit.

At the government-run Bushenyi Primary School, in southwestern Uganda, The Continent got a peek into why parents choose to scrape together tuition fees they can barely afford to give their children a private education.

Set up to be an all-inclusive school, about 40% of its learners have disabilities like hearing and visual impairments, learning challenges and bodily impairments.

The school buildings were not maintained during the shutdown, and are not fit for use. Lessons are instead taken under the shade of trees: when it rains, class is over.

But the school’s challenges predate the pandemic. The school struggled to retain staff: many teachers assigned to the school would abscond, either going to other schools or into personal projects outside teaching altogether.

Brian Sunday, a sign language teacher at the school, said it had also suffered shortages of instructional materials and equipment for learners with special needs, including wheelchairs. He said there were also too few special attendants for children who required more personal attention and support. “Accessibility is hard,” he said. “These classrooms were designed for able-bodied children.”

A month later, Bushenyi Primary is open again, but nearly a third of its pupils have not returned. Of the 150 children enrolled before the pandemic only 104 have returned.

One of those who will not be returning to school this academic year is … let’s call her Sarah. She is 16. When schools closed, she began working in a restaurant. A restaurant customer raped her. Now she is pregnant.

“I can’t go back,” she says. “I feel ashamed … weak. And I sleep all the time. Maybe I will return to school some day. After I give birth.”  

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here

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