Prof. MESHARCH KATUSIIMEH (PhD): How to safely reopen schools after COVID-19 closures

President Museveni in his address to the nation on matters regarding COVID-19 on 18th May, 2020 has directed that schools can be opened but only for candidate classes. He has also directed that in the next two weeks the Ministry of Education and Sports (MOES) should plan how the learners can go to school.

I would like to commend President Museveni for his wise directives especially on issues to do with the education sector. Education has been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. The directive by President Museveni ensures that finalists are not interrupted in this critical stage of their educational career.

The Minister of Education Hon Janet Museveni must also be commended as she has been giving regular updates. She also constituted the Education Sector Response Task Force to strengthen the education sector preparedness and to generate response measures to mitigate the impact of the outbreak of COVID-19 on Uganda’s education system. However, the task force has mainly concentrated on ensuring continuity of learning while learners are at home. I have not seen any measures to do with preparing for the resumption of and managing schooling once the COVID-19 lockdown is lifted.

The MOES must come up with a transparent plan for reopening schools as quickly and responsibly as possible. This will include preparing the physical schools for reopening, providing teachers with accurate information and training on the public health crisis and most importantly using schools as an opportunity to quickly monitor and trace any reemergence. One of the important questions MOES has to address is when term 1 will end so schools don’t cheat parents or vice versa.

Meanwhile, the fate of other students should not be forgotten. Government must take time and fix gaps before schools reopen especially the issue of overcrowding. It is possible that no vaccine may ever be developed and therefore we must prepare for the worst case possibility.

Let me point out some of the measures government may think deeply about. First, how do we ensure social distancing in schools? According to MOES standards, for every teacher there should be not more than 55 students but you will find that in some schools the overall teacher-student ratio is more than 5 times less the standard. In fact you will find some classes having more teachers than students. This is driven majorly by number of subjects that must be taught and the level of class student enrolment.

This is the situation in most public primary schools I am familiar with in western Uganda.  In most traditional secondary public schools, enrollment has steadily been dwindling for periods spanning 10 years or more due to laxity in management and governance. This is the case with schools like Kigezi High School, Kigezi College Butobere, Ruyonza School, Nganwa High School, Masheruka Secondary School, Kitunga High School, Busoga College Mwiri, Nyakasura High School, St Leos Kyegobe and many others. Alumni of these schools have been struggling to revive the fortunes of these schools with limited success.

And yet these are public schools run by the government with lots of capacity in terms of classrooms, dormitories and well-trained teachers. Government has been paying teachers for almost no work done.  These schools can be supported to take on more students from overcrowded government and private schools. To ensure social distancing, overcrowding in schools can be avoided by ensuring children are redistributed ensuring each school has an enrollment that does not exceed her capacity.

Thirdly, the MOES should also reign on schools increasing school fees and imposing unnecessary charges. Several directives on this matter by the MOES have been ignored. Why should a secondary school or primary school charge over UGX 1 million in school fees? A school can be able to feed children well, pay teachers well and still realize some profit with fees below 800,000/=.

Most Ugandan universities charge fees below than 600,000 for most academic programs. I propose that government comes up with laws related to fixing the maximum tuition fees that can be charged by schools (it can be the same for public and private).  In fact the vast majority of private schools charge little fees and some function in disadvantaged areas compared to their counterparts in government-subsidized public schools. 

In the coming weeks and months, government of the Republic of Uganda must make difficult but wise choices about her investments in the education sector. The crisis may stretch resources but it will be for the right cause.

It is important to remember that today’s children are tomorrow’s engineers, doctors, professors, politicians, public health experts etc. We need to seriously reform our school systems so that we can be better prepared to solve future epidemics and crises.

The writer is the Dean Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences Kabale University and Chairperson Board of Governors Nganwa High School & Director Rwebiita Preparatory School, Sheema District. He can be contacted on email [email protected] Tel 0772620852 Twitter @Rwebiita

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