Kampala, Uganda | THE INDEPENDENT | Plans by several schools to make a COVID-19 test compulsory for returning students, and to also increase school fees, could be frustrated if orders by the Ministry of Education are enforced.
Several educationists URN talked to are however not happy with the directive, saying the order on school fees is unrealistic given the expenditures incurred keeping institutions running during the lock-down for most of the past two years.
On COVID-19 tests, Alex Mutaawe, a parent and resident of Kamwokya, fears that although mandatory testing of learners imposed by schools has been officially halted, it may still go on and the same ministry will do nothing.
“The ministry cannot enforce what they are saying. School managers are demi-gods and whatever they say, parents will do it even if it is affecting us. The Ministry will not come to anyone’s rescue. Why? because the majority of schools which impose such things are owned by authorities in the ministry,” said Mutaawe.
With the surge in COVID-19 cases registered in the country, managers of several boarding schools especially in the Kampala Metropolitan Area asked parents to ensure that learners appear with negative PCR test results taken at least 72 hours before reporting day. Others informed parents that the test would be carried out by pre-positioned private laboratories upon arrival.
But after public outcry, the Director-General of Health Services Dr Henry Mwebesa, wrote to the education ministry asking them to instruct schools to desist from the practise since it is not part of the national school reopening requirements.
“The national COVID-19 task force guidelines for reopening of schools, jointly developed by the MOES (Ministry of education and sports) and MOH (Ministry of Health), provides specific guidance on how learners will safely return to schools. testing learners on arrival was not one of the recommendations,” Director-General of Health Services Dr Henry Mwebesa noted in a January 6 letter to the Ministry of Education Permanent Secretary.
Dr Mwebesa noted that schools were required to put in place a system for strict compliance to COVID-19 Standard Operating Procedures and strengthening surveillance systems.
“With guidance from the health ministry, the authorities at the Ministry of Education have outlawed mandatory COVID-19 tests for learners,” Hajj Ismael Mulindwa, the Director of Basic Education, who described the act as madness from schools noted, saying that any school that will insist on forcing it on students will be penalized.
Mulindwa says many schools are using the tests to increase the burden of returning learners to school given the fact that parents are already financially stressed but schools keep on creating excuses to get money out of them. He cited that their investigation has found out that many schools which have imposed mandatory COVID-19 tests are charging fees that are way higher than those charged by laboratories. The director also notes that some schools have reportedly contracted private service providers which are not accredited to carry out PCR tests.
Dr Elizabeth Ekirapa-Kiracho, a Senior Lecturer and Head of Health Policy Planning and Management Department at Makerere University, howevere has a divergent view on the issue. She notes that if testing wasn’t expensive, it would have been one of the best things to do before schools reopen.
She says that without testing, infected learners are going to spread the virus to others which might create COVID-19 surges in school. She however says that the only limitation to this initiative is the fact that testing is not accessible due to the high fees charged.
No school fees hike
Government this week also stopped all private and government-funded schools from increasing tuition fees.
The decision comes at a time when many schools in the country had opted to increase fees as a way to raise money to pay back school loans.
The Minister of Education stopped schools from asking parents to pay top-up fees for learners in Senior Three. Many schools in Kampala and Wakiso were asking parents to pay between 600,000 and 900,000 Shillings on average as a top-up.
Janet Kataha Museveni, the Minister of Education and Sports in a televised address this week asked all schools to cease increasing fees or ask parents of learners in S.3 to pay top-ups and maintain the fees structures as they were before the first COVID-19 induced Lockdown.
Janet also noted that schools should stop from undertaking big Infrastructure projects and desist from instituting unnecessary requirements such as mandatory covid-19 tests.
According to the minister, all this is increasing the cost of education yet they are not critical.
Many school circulars that URN has seen, the schools defended the increment citing loan payments and school maintenance costs. However, some heads of schools say the increase in fees is inevitable since many schools suffered during the lockdown.
Geoffrey Birungi, the head teacher of Mbarara Secondary School says the need for top-ups is justified. He says many schools remained spending money in the lockdown and learners to return to school without paying anything is unrealistic.
Birungi says although his school has not yet increased fees, he thinks the way forward on the issue will be decided after a parents’ meeting.
He says that the matter of school charges and fees can be handled better by involving all stakeholders to agree on the flexible payments and also come up with appropriate installments that a parent or guardian can pay given the circumstances.
Filbert Baguma, the Secretary-General of UNATU says schools need to be considerate. He says although schools have suffered financially with the prolonged closure, parents are equally affected.
Some parents have welcomed the government’s stand however many are not sure if schools would adhere to the directives.
“My granddaughter is in S3 but was asked in a message to go with 400,000 shillings or else the children would not be allowed into the schools. Am happy by what the minister said but these Ugandan schools are greedy. I doubt they will allow us to enter without paying anything,” said Elizabeth Kyomuhendo.
One private school owner who preferred to remain anonymous to freely comment on the matter noted that the government cannot decide on how private schools charge fees. The school owner argued that with COVID-19 effects on the sector, the government has failed to offer relief packages to stressed schools.
“How will schools survive? Government failed to give us a hand. We are on a sinking boat and nobody is considering our plight,” he noted.
Although the government has not given out cash relief packages to schools as they had demanded, there have been several offers given to schools. For instance, the government through the Bank of Uganda has stopped banks from collecting interests from loans acquired by schools prior to the lockdown.
But, in many circulars seen by our reporters, schools justify the need to increase school fees by noting that they have been paying interest on loans they had acquired from banks.
Meanwhile, the education ministry is frustrated by the traditional schools which are aided by the government in paying their teachers, infrastructure developed, and buying scholastic materials but still charge parents higher than many other private schools.
“This madness should stop. Government supports these schools nearly in everything. But look at their fees structures. They impose inflexible, exorbitant fees charged under PTA. They are always creating ways of soliciting money from parents. This time around we are determined to end this,” Ismeal Mulindwa, the director in charge of basic education at the education ministry noted on Thursday.