Your Excellency, managing the economy during the COVID19 pandemic has not been easy but you have done very well in the circumstances. Your tireless efforts in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic in Uganda has been recognized at home and abroad. You decided ‘to err on the side of caution and that is why Uganda is among the countries that have recorded low numbers of death from COVID19. This is a result of your guidance and the national response strategy that included early closure of schools among other interventions.
However, I am worried and compelled to raise concerns about the continued closure of schools. Your decision not to fully open schools for close to 2 years continues to baffle Ugandans. Lately, the reason for not re-opening schools was explained by the Minister of Education and Sports (MOES) Maama Janet Museveni on her official Twitter handle, asking parents to be patient as the government handles the vaccination of the vulnerable groups and students aged 18 and above.
In her own words, she said “If the children, on the other hand, infect their parents, as most of them are day scholars, they would become orphans just like HIV/AIDS did to many families. We were left with many child-headed families in Uganda at that time.” This seems the current official position. The statement by Maama Janet Museveni instead of calming down the situation worsened matters with Ugandans coming up with various conspiracy theories to explain why the government is not opening schools.
One of the theories gaining traction is that the NRM government doesn’t prioritize education. They even claim that the budget for the education sector except for paying salaries of teachers and staff at education institutions has been diverted to other ‘priority sectors. Mainstream media is now reporting that the government has allowed primary and secondary schools to open in January 2022 while universities will open in November 2021.
Before Maama Janet Museveni statement, you had indicated that government would first ensure that those above 12 years are fully vaccinated. Are vaccines available so the government will have finished vaccinating all those who are 12 or 18 years and above by January 2022? According to the New York Times, Cuba has started giving shots to children as young as 2. Are we about to hear that all primary schools will not open until all children above 3 are vaccinated? In any case, who knows, the 3rd wave may happen around early next year calling for the postponement of school re-opening!
My take is that it is time for schools to be fully reopened. We have already wasted a lot of time. Children and schools are not the faces of this pandemic but in Uganda probably more than elsewhere, are now the biggest victims. Last year (June 2020 to be exact), I wrote to you by means of an open letter entitled “Decision not to open schools may do more harm than good” and I am glad you read and replied to the letter. This letter was published in the Independent Magazine of 16th June 2020 and the Observer of June 16, 2020.
This showed to me you are a President who takes the views of Ugandans very seriously. I would like to continue from where I stopped. Unlike developed countries who successfully executed Plan B in form of virtual learning, only about 5% of Ugandan children are benefiting from that. In future, I would like to suggest that for countries like Uganda, when the economy is locked down, it should be locked down totally and reopened at once with all sectors operating including schools but strictly observing SOPs.
At a time when COVID19 surges, the country can be up locked again and then reopened when the curve flattens. Lockdowns are just a stop-gap measure. The reality is this: No matter how long schools remain closed, it is not going to end this pandemic. The impact of school closures will however live with us for generations. This is particularly severe for the most vulnerable and marginalized boys and girls and their families who are the majority in the country.
The Understanding and Cause of COVID19 waves flawed
Mr. President, the COVID-19 “mess” for education is a unique one. We have limited information about the likely path of the pandemic. That is probably the predicted waves never happen at the time they are predicted. The government will keep making decisions in a context of uncertainty.
Mr. President, save for education institutions, most other sectors are fully open. People have returned to work but the newfound freedom is tainted with fear of a third wave of infections as envisioned by scientists. This is probably the very reason behind the continued closure of schools. The concept of a third wave could however be flawed. It implies that it is something inevitable, to how the virus behaves – that possibly it goes away for a bit, then comes back. This idea fails to take into account the importance of ongoing preventive actions and portrays us as helpless and at the whim of this virus.
There have been reports of a surge in COVID-19 infections in the Teso sub-region. This has been blamed on the poor adherence to the SOPs put in place by the Ministry of Health to contain the spread of the virus. However, the poor adherence to the SOPs is not only in Teso. It is the situation in practically every part of Uganda. Every time I travel to Kampala, Wakiso, Mbarara, Mukono and other urban centres I am familiar with, I see overcrowding but the reported COVID19 infection numbers continue to below. That is how the situation of COVID19 can be very confusing.
Mr. President, when you partially opened the economy in July 2021, Ugandan scientists started predicting and warning that the 3rd wave would fall in August and September 2021. Even in October last year, when schools were partially opened for candidates, scientists were advising against the move predicting the 2nd wave but that never came to pass until May 2021.
The country was in the madness of electoral campaigns and people were hardly observing SOPs, bars were fully open etc but the 2nd wave only happened in May 2021. Schools are wrongly blamed for the 2nd wave. Schools are part of the community. The problem was that community infections were on the rise in April and May 2021 and this coincided with classes reported for classes after a very long break as a result of COVID19.
It is possible children were coming to schools when they were already infected. It is intellectual dishonesty for some scientists to keep blaming schools for the 2nd wave. How then can they explain the so many variants in the country including the Delta variant? Did it come to Uganda because of the re-opening of schools?
The truth is that our containment strategy wasn’t that airtight. By the time of the 2nd lockdown, a lot of mixing, infection and community transmissions had happened and continued to spread. The climax was the haphazard closure of schools in June 2021 that led to students getting stuck in bus and taxi parks and a good number probably getting infected in the process. It was so sad that we lost many people at that time but hopefully, we learnt our lessons
Is it morally right to continue sacrificing the majority – the children?
I can understand we are protecting vulnerable groups especially the elderly. As we do this though, we are sacrificing the majority – the children. These children will live but will be useless in future. “
In any case, if you’re not learning, you’re not living”. History will judge us if we lose a generation due to school closures. In any case, very few people out there especially adults are observing the SOPs. According to your directives, social gatherings are supposed to be limited to a maximum of 20 people under strict observance of SOPs but check what is happening at funerals and weddings. We are back to the pre-COVID19 era. Children are busy mixing up with adults at funerals, weddings, markets, in towns etc. So why close schools? The risk to a community from a mass gathering of children is no greater than from a mass gathering of adults at burials, weddings, markets etc. The same people go to bars and restaurants to enjoy themselves in disregard of the curfew time. Very few Ugandans adhere to the 7:00 pm curfew. Saunas and gyms operate freely. The situation pertains to the transport industry except for buses that ply longer routes.
Why the rich and privileged are less bothered by calls to re-open schools!
At least theoretically, leadership is about putting the interests of others first but in the COVID19 era, this has continued to prove to be a myth. People are by nature selfish and they mind themselves and their immediate families which is okay. In any case the Bible tells us in 1st Timothy 5: 8 that “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. The main problem is that we have completely forgotten that other people especially the less privileged exist. The Bible again reminds us in Philippians 2:4 “Let each of you look not only to his own interests but also to the interests of others.”
I am talking about the urban elites with formal employment including members of parliament and other government employees. They are earning a salary and have very good facilities at their homes. Their children are doing virtual learning as they continue homeschooling. Others are teaching their own children at home or hiring private teachers to teach children in the comfort of their homes.
Still, others have enrolled their children in International Schools. Everybody knows that international Schools opened for in-person sessions and classes are being conducted normally. No pronouncement by the government was made on the issue of international schools and I kept wondering why it was kept a secret.
When I inquired from those who teach there, I was told they were allowed to open for only candidate classes but decided quietly to open for all classes. A good number of schools in Kampala and other urban areas have continued teaching online.
Mr. President these are the category of parents who are close to you and discuss with you the sensitive issue. They are the ones threatening not to send their children to schools until the government declares zero Covid-19 cases or till everyone is fully vaccinated. This group has nothing to lose with schools staying closed. I can be classified in this group. I have been in charge of my children’s education. I have even been thinking of opting out of formal schooling altogether because I have been inspired by the learning and growth of my children in all aspects during this time at home.
This COVID-19 crisis, while terrible overall, has revealed to me that children can be educated without being formally being in our normal and expensive schools. However, Mr President, those who are like me in a privileged position to do homeschooling or follow virtual classes or benefit from TV lessons and newspaper pullouts are very few probably less than 5% of parents in Uganda. We must think about other parents and children who have not been schooling at all from the moment schools closed in March 2020.
Impact on children and working parents
Children are going through an existential anxiety/crisis. Whether referred to as an existential crisis, or existential anxiety, the main concerns are the same: that life is inherently pointless and that their existence has no meaning.
Think about how many children have been infected with HIV, who have lost lives while aborting, early marriages, exposure to drugs, child labour etc. It is because of the fear of all these that people no longer work properly. All those workers with children including healthcare workers cannot easily attend to work because of childcare obligations that result from school closures.
This means that many workers including medical professionals are not at the facilities where they are most needed during a health crisis. Working parents are more likely to miss work when schools close in order to take care of their children. This results in wage loss and negatively impacts productivity.
Mr. President, it is out of this realization that probably our neighbouring countries (Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi) have risked having schools opened for longer periods. It is also the reason Ugandans are of the view that schools are being sacrificed for no good reason. We are in an era of mistrust unlike before when all Ugandans, including opposition politicians, trusted and supported the government to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. If the schools don’t open soon, the belief that there are ulterior motives in the continued closure of schools will continue to gain traction. What is worrying is the government failure to walk with its people in every step.
What could be done?
Your Excellency, let us not allow COVID19 to defeat us and destroy the education system of this country. Let us begin thinking and these are my humble suggestions.
First, open schools though the decision to send children to schools can be personal. Families especially in the urban setting might choose not to send to school a child with comorbidity or one who lives with a parent or elderly grandparent who has cancer or any such disease that makes their immune system especially weak. Further, if some parents, especially those who can continue to care for and educate the child at home, keep them from school, there would be less congestion and that would lower the risk of going to school (with fewer students) for those who do not have the same privileges. Government can invest in massive sensitization so as to allow mainly the less privileged children to access school.
Second, schools should not open without precautions. Serious enforcement of SOPs should be done not only to schools but also in all sectors. Regular testing can be done and in case the virus is found, then additional steps such as testing children or staff, or instituting more precautions, could be taken. Meanwhile, we are being told that vaccines are coming in in a big way. So as soon as adequate doses are available, Uganda should consider vaccinating adolescents including teenagers and these can be easily be organized and inoculated at school.
Third, commission COVID19 related research study especially on the impact of school closures. COVID-related research commissioned by the government is almost non-existent. That is why everything you say is regarded as mere politicking which is unfortunate at a time of a pandemic like this one.
Forth, it’s vital that the government provides her people with continuous updates. Your leadership in the first wave was great, updating, explaining and giving people guidance on what could come next. Many people listened and felt leadership was being accountable. This central platform could continue, with other actors (technical, civil society) being invited to talk about issues. It is out of continuous updates that people will understand that for example there are issues outside the control of government – like vaccine manufacturers who are making Uganda, among other countries, wait in a long queue.
Fifth, there is a likely to be a shortage of teachers when school normal business returns. When schools close, especially unexpectedly and for unknown durations, teachers are often unsure of their obligations and whether the teaching profession is worth it. A good number of teachers have abandoned the teaching profession due to uncertainty.
Immediate opening of the national Primary Teacher Colleges (PTCs) and National Teachers Colleges (NTCs) to train and graduate more teachers is very important. The MOES could also suspend the well-publicized teacher reforms to first allow normalcy to return.
Lastly, walk with your people during this time of crisis. Crisis leadership means listening carefully to your people, to their concerns, and to their ideas and solutions, however small. You could consider setting up channels for listening under your office—even to things you may not wish to hear. Everyone from ministerial staff down to district leaders and school heads, teachers, children, and parents has something to contribute, and together they will provide crucial insights to help you plan your response to reopening schools. Appointing a body to coordinate these inputs can help.
Keeping schools closed means we are at the mercy of the virus now and in the future. But we are human beings created to conquer the world. We must keep fighting. God expects us to defeat the virus ourselves.
The writer is the Dean Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences Kabale University. Tel 0772620852 / 0704372780 Twitter @rwebiita