SCHOOLS RE-OPENING: The tough decisions to be made
Kampala, Uganda | THE INDEPENDENT | On Aug. 26, news reports emerged that GEMS Cambridge International School in Kampala was set to close by December.
The Uganda Radio Network, a syndicated news provider, called it “yet another non-medical causality of the COVID-19 lockdown”.
Reports quoting Riz Ahmed, the Chief Executive Officer of GEMS Africa, said the elite school which boasts of providing quality education and raising opportunities for hundreds of students was closing because the pandemic had resulted in numerous “uncertainties’.
“The decision to close the school that was established in Uganda in 2013 was made after exhausting all options,” the CEO reportedly said in a statement.
It appears the decision by GEMS Cambridge International School kicked the Ministry of Education out of its slumber which has put the future of 15 million learners and 500,000 teachers at stake.
In an earlier interview with The Independent, Grace Ngororano, a senior six student of Kigezi High School in southwestern Uganda told The Independent on June 17 that she has been feeling terrible ever since schools closed.
“I feel very bad. I thought this was my final year of high school; unfortunately, we might stay home for the entire year.”
But, even if she sounded dejected, Ngororano, 18, said staying alive is better. “You would rather stay home even for two years to keep safe and then return to school,” she said.
She said returning to school presents lots of risks for the students. She lives in the border district of Kisoro, and for her, returning to schools means mixing with strangers on public transport and with other students who come from far away Kampala, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and even Nigeria.
Filbert Baguma who is the General Secretary of the Uganda National Teachers Union (UNATU), a 140,000 strong union, said UNATU’s position is that before schools reopen the wellbeing of teachers, the learners and support staff must be guaranteed.
“You cannot open schools when you don’t know whether these schools can afford temperature guns, water access points and whether social distancing would be implemented.”
“Remember the government promised to give out face masks but up to now they are nowhere to be seen. Close to 40 districts are still under lockdown. How will the schools in those districts operate?”
But Nicholas Ssewajje, who teaches in a private school, said the 17,000 members of the Uganda National Association of Private Schools and Institutions want schools to reopen.
“None of us is sure of when COVID-19 will go away,” he said.
None of these positions appears to have changed.
Push to re-open
Yet for months, many managers and owners of private schools in Uganda had been pushing the government to reopen or else many of them would wind up business before the lockdown was eventually lifted; possibly next year.
Buildings of some schools around Kampala have already been repurposed for other businesses. In July, the proprietors of Najjeera Progressive School with 500 students along the Kiwatule-Najjeera road in Kira Municipality, Wakiso District, announced they had decided to close it after 32 years of existence.
“After comprehensive analysis of the business viability, we are certain the school cannot survive the shutdown measures alongside other pre-existing pressures,” said Andrew Timothy Nsamba, the school director who inherited the management from his mother Kezia Matovu.
It was an emotional moment.
“Although life might continue long after the closure, it will not be the same for many of us,” said a teacher at the school.
At the time, there were reports that many private schools across the country were stressed. Many were operating on unsustainable financial arrangements including loans. The Uganda National Association of Private Schools and Institutions had written to the government in search of a stimulus package to keep afloat.
In June, President Yoweri Museveni had ordered the Education and Gender ministries to list education institutions from primary to tertiary institutions that have been affected by the lockdown and in July he advised the Uganda Development Bank (UDB) to take on the loans of some of the private schools struggling due to the lockdown. He also offered Shs2 billion towards the private Sacco of about 350,000 teachers in private schools. But he ruled out paying off their salaries.
Museveni said a hard decision would have to be made before September. He said the choice was whether to reopen the schools for candidate classes and finalists, declare a dead year altogether, or if a vaccine is got by then, vaccinate all students and reopen all schools. But three months later, no decision had been made.