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Mental health challenge for re-opening school

Students, teachers return with post-COVID lockdown problems

Kampala, Uganda | RONALD MUSOKE | Schools are scheduled to re-open on Oct. 15, for some 1.2 million learners who are in their final year of their respective levels of formal education. But as school administrators and parents continue mulling over how to implement the tough Standard Operating Procedures to control the spread of the coronavirus which causes the COVID-19 disease, mental health experts are concerned about the psychological state under which most of the students are returning after a 29-week break.

Dr. Paul Nyende, a senior lecturer of psychology at Makerere University told The Independent on Sept. 30 that much as the debate on re-opening of schools has focused on the financial burden for schools and parents, the mental health of the learners and teachers, especially in private schools is as important.

“These students have experienced a lot of anguish in their homes and communities where they have been living for the last seven months,” Dr. Nyende told The Independent, “They have witnessed battles in homes and they have also been victims of this violence.”

“Most of them have had a rapid change of attitude and, for some of them, school does not matter anymore,” he said.

Dr. Nyende added that much has changed over the last seven months and there is likely to be “a bit of upheaval” in schools. “Teachers will be dealing with learners who have changed a lot over the last seven months,” he said.

Rose Kyarimpa, a counselor and director of Buhumuriro Counseling Centre in the western city of Mbarara also told The Independent on Oct.01 that her centre had received an unusual increase in adolescent students seeking counseling services over the course of the lockdown.

She said the majority of cases (learners in primary and secondary level) had admitted to losing focus because of so much “free time” at home. Kyarimpa said September was one of the centre’s busiest months with parents coming into the centre with their children seeking help.

“Some parents have called us to go and speak to the children in their homes while we have also been called to go and speak to these adolescents in their communities,” she said. In her interaction with parents, Kyarimpa said, the parents have noticed several behavioural disorders.

But the other group in the school system who need to be watched closely, Nyende said, are teachers; especially those in private schools. “They have had several issues during the entire lockdown; many of them have not been paid and many of them are depressed because they have suffered uncertainty for seven months,” Dr. Nyende said.

“Many have lost respect yet they are supposed to be respected members of society because their profession is a noble one. They have lost face in front of their own families; many of them have lost faith in their profession.”

“Some of them have opened up small businesses which could be doing well and if some of the teachers weigh the returns from their businesses against the money they earn from teaching, they may consider giving up their profession.”

Dr. Nyende told The Independent that this might prove a challenge for head teachers whose task will be rallying these teachers back to the classroom.

“It is like getting a car with a faulty battery to restart it,” Dr. Nyende said, “They need counselors in the system to re-ignite that motivation.”

“The commitment to education might have diminished. They are carers for our children but they need to be cared for; they need a system that replenishes their energy.”

Nicholas Sewajje, who works with Teacher Africa-Uganda (Ticha), a teacher association founded recently to help other teachers in dire need told The Independent that the lockdown left many private teachers devastated.

“Some have experienced domestic violence while others have had their self-esteem shattered because of their inability to provide for their families,” Sewajje told The Independent recently, “They don’t look stable.

Even the learners are not stable.” Speaking at a UNESCO COVID-19 Education webinar organised on April 09, 2020, Ismail Mulindwa, the director Basic and Secondary Education at the Ministry of Education and Sports shared the same view on high-stake exams while adopting a different strategy. “It’s a very fragile situation. Parents and students are worried.”

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