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COVID and schools

Urgency needed to reopen

Belinda Kyomuhendo, a parent says that reopening schools should take the same energy that has gone into discussions to reopen shopping arcades and public transport.

“Right now, we seem to be dealing with a situation of ‘everyman for himself’ but we need to have the same sense of urgency like when public transport is shut and we are on twitter asking the government to open up transport.

“The schools should have been high priority the same way we have fought for Kikuubo, arcades and public transport to open. We have district COVID-19 taskforces and this should have been the time for them to do their work. We can enforce the SOPs; we can have teachers not teach every day; we can have learners go to school half day,” she says.

Filbert Baguma, the Secretary General of the Uganda National Teachers Union (UNATU) says the government needs to wake up to reality.

“The talk right now should be on how to ensure that schools reopen soonest because any continued closure of schools may not be felt now but will definitely be felt tomorrow,” he says.

Baguma says massive vaccination of teachers, non-teaching staff, parents aged 50 years and above as well as all the people with chronic illnesses must be done urgently if it is the only thing that can save the education sector.

For Nalubinga of UCOBAC, rather than insist on holding learners at home waiting to be vaccinated; the government “needs to move beyond tokenism in solving the education puzzle.”

She says the government should set aside specific budget allocations for acquisition of vaccines for the teachers, school support staff, and children. It should also work with school administrators to make school environments safe enough for schools to re-open.

She says schools can innovatively plan to use all their unused spaces to ensure physical distancing among children.

“Eating times in schools can, for instance, be varied to avoid crowding at the canteens and if eating breaks can closely be supervised, let schools do so,” she said.

“There should be continued sensitisation on the COVID-19 SOPs to keep the learners especially alert – this can be achieved by designating specific school staff to be in charge of this information dissemination and use of illustrative IEC materials.”

“There should also be regular inspection of schools by DEOs in collaboration with health officials to ensure that SOPs are continuously and fully observed.”

She says there should be bi-weekly disinfecting of school communal areas like dining areas, proper hygiene, and sanitation facilities.

“Schools will be safer if new practices are adopted. While we await the vaccines, the government can support routine and consistent screen testing of learners in schools; especially those that cannot afford to provide physical distancing,” she told The Independent.

Nalubinga notes that since modern schooling seems to be fast migrating online, there is need to subsidize the cost of internet data to enable more learners afford online learning/classes. This will help thousands of learners afford studying at home.

But, Nalubinga adds that there is need to plan to hold shorter and smarter lessons than the usual to limit length of time that learners interact.

For Dr. Mary Goretti Nakabugo, the executive director of Uwezo-Uganda, a Kampala-based non-profit that tracks education trends in the country, the government should stop dwelling on past experience where some schools were found to have admitted back learners who were not scheduled to be at school. She told The Independent that this excuse cannot be used any more.

“In any case, we are all to blame. Where were the supervisors? Even if we vaccinate everyone, there will still be situations where infections happen. Should that situation happen, let the government handle it on a case by case basis because the country cannot afford to disrupt the school calendar.”

Dr. Nakabugo says it is important for the government to come up with a plan where if a school has been found with cases, let these (cases) be isolated and handled individually.

“Don’t even close that school or schools in that district,” she said.

Dr. Nakabugo says putting the condition of vaccinating children on reopening schools may not work. She says the continued closure of schools will eventually affect all of us. “We might be controlling COVID-19 but the kids are dying of so many other things but also there is another issue of poverty.”

“I would say, let us go for SOPs, staggered reopening of schools and handle cases on an individual basis when they occur,” she said.

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