Uganda ends world’s longest school closure

KAMPALA: Uganda ended the world’s longest school closure yesterday, ordering millions of students back to the classroom nearly two years after learning was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic. Students poured through school gates that had been shuttered in March 2020 when COVID-19 swept the globe, greeting teachers and friends after 83 weeks outside the classroom.

“I am so happy because I was missing school, my teachers, my friends and my studies,” 10-year-old Nawilah Senkungu told AFP at Nakasero Primary School in Kampala, where teachers encouraged students to wear face masks and wash their hands. Education Minister John Muyingo said all primary and secondary students would automatically resume classes a year above where they left off, and urged schools to follow health protocols.

“All schools have implemented guidelines and standard operating procedures to ensure the safe return of children to schools, and measures have been put in place to ensure those who don’t comply do so,” he told AFP. But for some parents, the return to school has been difficult after the economic pain caused by pandemic curfews and lockdowns.

Everyln Nyakato, a salon worker and 42-year-old single mother of five, said she worried about covering fees and other school costs. “Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, I was struggling to pay school fees. Since the pandemic, I was out of work as the government closed our businesses,” she told AFP at a crowded bus stop in Kasubi, a suburb of Kampala. “I know I am not alone in this… it’s a nightmare for us, especially the poor.” Muyingo said any schools demanding fees above pre-pandemic rates would be sanctioned.

The closures affected at least 10 million primary and secondary pupils and lasted 83 weeks, according to the UN’s education and cultural body UNESCO. Children’s rights groups had criticized the extreme length of the shutdown, warning that closures had far-reaching consequences for learning and put vulnerable students at higher risk of child marriage or forced labor.

“We can’t let this happen again. We must keep schools open for every child, everywhere,” the UN children’s agency UNICEF said on Twitter. The charity Save the Children said students would struggle after falling so far behind, and warned there could be high dropout rates in coming weeks unless special efforts were made to help the youngsters adapt.

Remote learning was available only for the privileged few during Uganda’s school closures. Senkungu, the 10-year-old, spent the long closure helping on her grandparents’ small farm, tending chickens and digging the fields. “I am very happy to see my children back to school. They have been missing their teachers plus learning,” said her father, Siraj Senkungu.

Richard Aburo, deputy head at Nakasero Primary School, said schools and students had fared differently during closures, but those in rural and poorer settings had been hardest hit. “The effect of the Covid pandemic is enormous. It has affected the quality of education, so to bridge that gap will take some time,” he said. “Some schools up-country did not study anything, so the effects differ,” he said, adding teachers in many locations had also not been paid and abandoned the profession. The country of some 45 million people recorded 153,762 cases of COVID-19 with 3,339 deaths, according to the latest government figures issued on Jan 7. – AFP

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