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COVID-19 complicates education

Akello Ketty of Kampala Parents School instructing learners via Zoom on Nov. 10. INDEPENDENT/PETER KUSIIMA

Pandemic widens education gap as it impacts rural and disadvantaged children further

Kampala, Uganda | ISAAC KHISA | The scene looks like a typical telephone call centre. Women and men sit before computers, headsets pinned to their ears, mouth-pieces ready and light projectors dangling from the ceiling.

But this is not a telephone call centre. It is Kampala Parents and the men and women are teachers instructing learners at all levels – Primary 1 to Primary 6 – via the American video-telephony service Zoom. Physical classrooms have been closed since March due to a nationwide COVID-19 lockdown but learning continues.

“For us, learning never stopped during the lockdown,” says Jaime Nakubulwa Kasule, a Primary 7 learner at Kampala Parents. “We continued with our studies normally including revisions and doing tests.”

“The school program has continued normally amid COVID-19 pandemic. We are providing holistic education including physical education, bakery and cooking to learners at all level – lower and upper primary online,” says Paul Jungu, a teacher at Kampala Parents.

“We also do assessments for all our learners, mark and grade them every three to four weeks, to assess their progress as we anticipate promoting them to the next class next year.”

Similar scenes can be seen at Kampala Junior Academy, Greenhill Academy, Dream Africa Schools, and other private schools in Kampala and other urban centres. But they are a stark contrast to what is happening in the rural countryside.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit Uganda, and the subsequent closure of schools on March 20, Lilian Akware and her five siblings were already disadvantaged.

Marching out of classroom each evening meant end of learning for the day at Muyemu Primary School in Bugiri District, located approximately 150km east of Uganda’s capital, Kampala.

Living in grass thatched mud-and-stick huts with no connection to electricity meant reading or doing any form of revision at home difficult as the family lighting; a dim smoky kerosene lamp, was not ideal. Now, with schools closed, Akware spends most of the days in the garden with her parents.

“When I return home in the afternoon, I am already tired,” the 14-year old Primary 6 learner told The Independent, “In the evening I help my mother with cooking and head straight to bed since there’s no proper lighting to enable me do any form of revision.”

As disappointed as his daughter, Akware’s father; Christopher Bwire, says he is worried about the future of his children. He wants the schools re-opened.

“The future for my children is now unknown,” he said.  “The government closed schools claiming that the decision will contain the spread of coronavirus.  COVID-19 is now everywhere in the communities even when schools remain closed.”

By Dec.04 when this story was compiled, coronavirus cases in the country stood at 21,409, with 9,044 recoveries and 206 deaths, according to the Ministry of Health.

Uganda registered the first patient of coronavirus on March 18, prompting the government to impose a raft of prevent and delay spread of infection measures; including closing schools and sending 15 million learners home.

The Ministry responds

When later the Ministry of Education and Sports designed a Preparedness and Response Plan to the pandemic, it included a focus on continuity of learning – at home.

The Plan involved the government working with a consortium of different stakeholders, under the guidance of the National Curriculum Development Centre (NCDC), to develop standardised study lesson packages in the core subjects for primary and secondary levels, to be aired on radio and television for two hours per day for six days in week and online.

In addition, the government in partnership with the United Nations Children’s Fund started printing and distributing printed education materials to learners countrywide at a cost of US$800,000 (Approx. Shs2.9 billion).

However, The Independent’s month long investigations show that only limited learning takes place in rural and disadvantaged households with no or limited access to electricity, radio, TVs, internet or printed education materials..

Only about 1.2 million children in final classes in primary and secondary schools – Primary 7, Senior Four, Senior Six –   and tertiary institutions who resumed their studies on Oct.15 are learning; leaving millions of learners such as Akware in a disadvantaged position.

Latest data from the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) indicates that although the proportion of Ugandans who use kerosene for lighting has dropped dramatically from 84% in 2008, it still remains high at 47%. The households using electricity stands at 26%, majority of whom are in urban areas.

There are also only 1.73 million TV subscribers serving population of 39 million people in the country as at June, 2018, according to Uganda Communication Commission.

Moreover, some parts of the country do not receive TV or radio signals; especially in the Karamoja sub-region. In other instances, parents and other residents are illiterate and therefore unable to guide children for the ‘home-schooling’ initiative.

The situation is further complicated as the number of people with devices that access internet stands at 16.9 million at the end of last year.

But of this, subscribers with active smartphones on the network stands at only 6.6 million, majority of whom are located in affluent families and urban areas.

The Independent’s visit in the districts of Iganga, Bugweri, Bugiri and Namayingo found children who should have been learning busy working in the gardens or catching fish in the swamps.

In the Karamoja sub-region specifically in Napak, Moroto, Nakapiripirit and Amudat districts, children are busy grazing cattle, fetching water, collecting firewood and helping their families with the family chores.

Celestine Chebet, a Senior Two student at Kang’ole Girls High School in Napak District and hailing from Amudat District says she now concentrates on helping her mother with garden work and selling in the family shop.

“I used to receive help from a teacher within this locality at the onset of the pandemic,” she told The Independent. “But that is not any more as the teacher relocated to another place when it become evident that schools won’t open soon.”

“We have no access to radio, TV, internet or even newspapers for revision and therefore I have to wait till schools resume next year.”

She says her district lacks radio or TV signals and does not have access newspapers.

“We are in our own world within Uganda. The government needs to simply set-up a radio station here to enable our parents to probably own radio sets. Otherwise, we shall continue listening to Kenyan radio stations here with little help to us  since the most information aired is for the Kenyan audience,” Chebet said, in reference to Kalya FM located in West Pokot County in Kenya.

In the northern region districts including Kiryandogo, Gulu, Nwoya, Kitgum, Apac, Oyam, Kole and Lira, children either help their parents with farming activities, play or loiter in the villages.

Farther down in the Western Nile region; specifically in Moyo and Adjumani districts, children pick their fish nets or hooks as soon as the sun rises and head for the upstream of River Nile. Some; like John Bosco Mawadri, a senior two student of Laropi Secondary School in Moyo District, make mats for sell.

“Learning in this country has been essentially focused on online or televised or sometime via radios which is not accessible to everyone and it is ineffective compared to classroom learning,” Mawadri says, “In a class environment, a student can ask questions for clarifications which is not the case with self-studies.”

The region, which has become the home for refuges from South Sudan and the Democratic republic of Congo, has always been at the bottom in the country’s national examination ranking as a result of poor educational infrastructure and biting poverty. Things could worsen.

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