OpED

Senior educationist writes missive to Museveni: Let’s weigh all options ahead of re-opening schools

Summary: Thankfully, my suggestion of suspending the re-opening of schools was convincingly taken on by His Excellency the President as he addressed the Country recently.

At around 7:00am (this morning), I received a call from one journalist, asking me if I had received and read, Professor Mesharch Katusiimeh Rwebiita’s, open letter, under the theme, “Decision not to re-open schools may do more harm than good”, and I answered, yes I had.

Upon receiving my feedback, he (the journalist), went on to seek for my opinion, about the same. Incidentally, prior to “receiving” the letter in question, I had already written to you two letters: The first, being let’s balance the equation, starting with education and transport, and the second, “Suspend the re-opening of education institutions, indefinitely”.

Thankfully, my suggestion of suspending the re-opening of schools was convincingly taken on, since on June 1, while addressing the nation about our progress on CoViD-19, as a country, you suspended the re-opening of of schools and other education institutions from June 4, for another month, to enable you and your team, study the situation further, prior to pronouncing yourself about the same.

 

While I entirely agree with my senior, Professor Katusiimeh, on the issue of how education institutions should be re-opened, I still have a couple of reservations about the same.

First and foremost, it should be borne in mind that as a country, there are challenges that we need to consider when it comes to re-opening of education institutions.

Among these include, weighing the risks of opening the gates against the potential damage done by keeping them closed, whether to mental health, or economic recovery. Having learners sent back for studies, and ensuring that they are actually studying, as expected. Ensuring that all students expected to sit for their final exams, right from P.7 to University post-graduate students, do sit for their exams. Dealing with the financial situation, especially in private education institutions. And even more challenging might be convincing anxious parents that now is the time to send their children back to school. As the country counts the cost of nearly three months of lockdown, government has to make the call. Like Russell Viner, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said, during the European Union’s (EU’s) conference, organized to discuss the re-opening of schools in Europe, “This (re-opening of schools), is one of the most difficult things for policymakers. It is an impossible balancing task”.

Indeed, despite the day-to-day increase in the number of cases, we must admit the fact, the Education Ministry is in a much more challenging situation, that the Health Ministry, for it has so many questions coming in from all corners, about when, and perhaps, how education institutions will re-open, but with very few (that is, if they have any, anyway) answers. In fact, while addressing the nation on June 9, Heroes day, you talked of parents who regularly call, requesting you to declare this (2020), a dead academic year. In his brief, Professor Katusiimeh, equates the people advocating for a dead year, to those advocating for a total lockdown of the country, till further notice.

Either way, I wish to respect the idea of people advocating for a dead year, for I have analytically read their submissions, and I strongly believe these people have valid viewpoints which not need to be overlooked, as we deliberate about the issue of re-opening of education institutions. Unlike Europe, where schools are within a radius of 1-3km, meaning that learners can easily move to and fro school, in Uganda, it is the opposite. It is common practice to find children walking a distance of over 10km to and fro school, everyday.

To be in time, these children have to embark on their as early as 5:00am. With the curfew in place, this cannot be possible. Even if lessons were to end at 5:00pm, it is evident that a person who has to walk a distance of 10km, can hardly do so in two hours, so as to beat the curfew deadline of 7:00pm. Needless to emphasize the fact that even teachers who attend to these children equally do the same (walk such long distances, to and fro school).

Worse still, even learners and teachers who use public means to get to their respective education centres, will, definitely find it cumbersome to do so, unlike before, since transport costs have risen three-fold, in most places (if not, all) within the country. For example, from Kampala to Entebbe one now needs to part off with Ugx. 10,000/-, implying that you need a sum of Ugx. 20,000/- to move to and fro Entebbe from Kampala city centre, compared to the Ugx. 6,000/- for both journeys before the lockdown. Moving from Matugga to Kampala, you now need Ugx. 5,000/-, meaning including the return journey, you must be ready to part away with Ugx. 10,000/-. The same applies to people moving from Nnamugongo, Kira, Nnaalya, Bweyogere, and Kireka among other areas. To move to any of the aforementioned places prior to the lockdown, one needed not more than Ugx. 5,000/-, for a two-fold journey. There is also quite a big number of learners and teachers who use boda-boda transport to move to and fro school. Already, we are losing a number of boda-boda cyclists/people in accidents, as they try to run away from the security personnel, on seeing them carrying passengers. I can guarantee with certainty that in case the President re-opens education institutions without sorting out the issue of boda-boda carrying passengers, we shall lose a number of lives, since people will keep on using these bikes as a means of transport, to and fro school.

There is no doubt, the biggest percentage of the children will have to miss school, because their parents (who are already impoverished) cannot be in position to raise the required transport fare. Your Excellency, I have still failed to understand the logic behind people being so congested in Kikuubo, and then reducing them to a maximum of only seven passengers in a taxi. I believe scientists in Uganda and beyond, have to do more research why people after sharing the same bed, and actually, playing sex, are then told to keep a physical distance of two metres from one another. Honestly speaking, something is not adding up here. In fact, even parents with private transport means will find it difficult to transport their children to school, since they are not allowed to have more than three people in the car (including the driver), regardless of the passenger load capacity. So, whether you are driving a Vitz, or a Super Custom, you must all carry only two extra people in your vehicles. Unless the many questions surrounding the issue of transport are convincingly answered, the expected benefits that come along with education, will remain a nightmare, even when schools re-open.

Education institutions are not charity organizations, implying that for children to go back to school, they must pay school fees, on top of their personal school requirements. However, we need to remind ourselves that, a number of businesses are still under key and lock, since their owners are still in lockdown. Aware of the fact that people in this category are equally parents, re-opening of schools and other education institutions prior to opening up all businesses, will be unrealistic, unfair, and unjust.

Your Excellency, if government does not consider paying the registration fees for the different examining bodies, notably, UNEB, for all learners, regardless of whether they are part of the government’s universal education programme, or not, there is no doubt, the number of learners sitting for UNEB examinations this year, will be much lower than than of, say, 2008. However, if government finds it difficult to shoulder this burden, then it should stand in as surety, and let schools register all learners, such that schools can collect this money from parents on picking results of their children, and then remit it to UNEB.

This arrangement should apply for all examining bodies/institutions, including universities. Your Excellency, we cannot re-open education institutions before educating and sensitizing the relevant stakeholders, especially students, teachers, and parents, on how to handle Corona Virus cases, including those who are asymptomatic, is a risky ventures. Whether the re-opening of schools and other education institutions is gradually done, or not, if this (education and sensitization) is not done, there is a likelihood of a stampede, should any student, teacher, or any other person in school, shows signs of CoViD-19. To the extreme, even life might be lost.

While in Europe majority of the students have their education from within their respective countries, in Africa, more so, East Africa, it is the reverse. Most of these private education institutions have their biggest clientele from countries like Kenya, South Sudan, Tanzania, Burundi, and Rwanda. Apart from the Rwandese who stayed back after you announced the closure of education institutions, due to closure of the Katuna boda, majority of the other students from elsewhere moved back home. With borders and airports closed, it is obvious that these students cannot bounce back to pursue their studies, yet as already mentioned, minus these students most of these private education institutions cannot survive. Speaking to one senior administrator of a private university, who preferred anonymity, about the same (foreign students), she had this to say: “Re-opening education institutions and leaving borders, is a clear way of throwing us out of business. Foreign students are our cash cow, and if they do not return with the re-opening of schools, we are finished”. “Do your research in different private universities, and see what I am telling you.

Remember, we are supposed to be registering first year students now, but we are unable to, because of the obvious. Banks are going to take over these universities one-by-one, since they have our land titles, and recovering from CoViD-19 adverse effects, might not come this soon, if government does not come to our rescue”, she further explained. Your Excellency, I wish to thank you for putting a total of Ugx. 1trillion in Uganda Development Bank (UDB) in an effort to boost the economy, especially during this trying moment; I, however, wish to request you to direct those concerned to come up and provide the public with the necessary information on how to obtain this money. Your Excellency, truth be told, proprietors of private education institutions, of whatever sort, need your help as governmemt, if they are to stay in business.

Your Excellency, post-graduate students, and even a big percentage of undergraduate students, attend to their lectures in the evening (usually from 5:30-9:30pm). It is evident that with the curfew in place, the finalists in this category but cannot go in for lectures, and, therefore, cannot graduate, as planned. Furthermore, aware of the fact that majority of the undergraduate students have to go in for industrial training, or internship before they can graduate, this cannot be possible, since a number of organizations have already called off the arrangement, in an effort to enforce the Ministry of Health’s standard operating procedures (SOPs). In fact, looking at the final students studying education in the right from those in Primary Teachers’ Colleges (PTCs) to the university undergraduates, cannot be in position to do their school practice if schools are open to only a few students, as earlier announced. For example, students in PTCs cannot perform their school practice with only Primary Seven, attending studies. Likewise, with only S.4 and S.6 at school, it is evident that students in national colleges and those studying education in the different universities cannot be in position to do their school practice, and, as a result, cannot be in position to graduate, as expected. Needless to emphasize the fact that, a good number of post-graduate students doing education conduct their research in education institutions. With only a few students reporting back for studies, it might not be easy for post-graduates pursuing education to carry on with their, successfully.

Your Excellency, certainly, there are post-graduate students, including undergraduates who have to do their research in the “red” districts; i.e., districts that are still in lockdown. Unless lockdown is also lifted in these districts, I don’t see these students graduating. Students of beauty and cosmetology must sit for practical exams. However, this can only be done, if lockdown on salons is lifted, since doing any salon-related business is currently against the law. So, this category of learners cannot also graduate. Your Excellency, there are schools that have been used as quarantine centres. Prior to re-opening of schools, what plans does governmemt have for such schools? Your Excellency, school proprietors have already embarked on the move of transforming their schools into other businesses. About two weeks ago, the proprietor of Kawala College School, in the suburbs of Kampala, was seen transforming his/her school into rental units. There is a likelihood that many proprietors have taken this direction. Perhaps, the Permanent Secretary of the Education Ministry can furnish you with more details if he gave green light to this arrangement, as required by the Education (Pre-primary, Primary, and Post-primary) Act, 2008. And if he did so, what arrangement does he have for the adversely affected students? If he did not, what action has he taken so far against the school proprietor for breaching the law, from the time he got to know of the action taken? Your Excellency, an education institution is an ideal centre of reference for a person, even after their demise. For this reason, I strongly believe we cannot leave education institutions to operate like hotels, salons, or petrol stations. The law should completely outlaw the issue of proprietors of these institutions doing whatever they so wish with their investments, regardless of the prevailing circumstances. I believe the Education Ministry has allowed so many jokers to join education as investors, and if appropriate action is not taken, we might end up failing to achieve the intended objectives of education. Your Excellency, I am of the view that proprietors who feel can no longer be comfortable to run their establishments should hand them over to governmemt, of course, at an appropriate fee, other than “hawking” and “peddling” schools around as though they are “hawking” tomatoes, onions, or fish. Your Excellency, I have noted with concern the way CoViD-19 suspicious cases, or already confirmed cases are handled. In fact, when a CoViD-19 case is being picked up from the community, one might think Kony and his accomplices have re-surfaced. For heaven’s sake, why must we treat these people like rebels,
serial thieves, or bank robbers? Memories of the Masaka Resident District Commissioner (RDC) handcuffing a woman with a man using the same handcuff, are still fresh in my mind. For the 34 years you have been in power, Your Excellency, I have never seen, or heard of a woman handcuffed, regardless of the crime committed. In fact, I am least worried about anyone contracting the virus, but I am very concerned about the aftermath. Your Excellency, with all due respect, if we do not start handling CoViD-19 cases in a humane way, we might fail to register the required results, soonest, as people will continually go in hiding. Let us move away from denial, and accept the fact that the virus is now with us. Your Excellency, do you think there is any rational parent who can risk sending back their children to school, if they know that it is the military that will pick them up, once suspected to have contracted the virus? Which rational teacher is willing to undergo the embarrassment? I am personally not ready to see my lovely surrounded off by the army while at school, simply because she has shown signs of CoViD-19. Better she remains home, even when schools are re-opened than being embarrassment before the rest of the school. Your Excellency, when you directed the LDUs to stop beating your people, they heed the directive. I am humbly requesting you to kindly direct those charged with the responsibility of managing CoViD-19, to use a much more friendly approach in handling CoViD-19-related cases. In any case if the army must be part of the team picking up the case in question, let them dress up like civilians. And if they have to be armed, then let them be issued with pistols, rather the usual AK47. Your Excellency, this is a serious issue that ought to be attended to with the urgency it deserves, ahead of re-opening education institutions. Your Excellency, prior to re-opening of education institutions, let’s first re-open churches, mosques, and temples among other institutions in this category, of course, with well-laid down SOPs. Your Excellency, we need the religious leaders to embark on psycho-social therapy, for the students, parents, teachers, etc. As we discuss the issue of re-opening schools, we need to remind ourselves that it is not only children who need to be considered. I will borrow the words of Martin Mckee, Professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who said, … “We need to think about the risks of both opening schools and keeping them closed to children, parents, teachers, and support staff”. When Corona Virus first emerged, it quickly became clear that children were relatively unscathed. “In every country, across the world, children have been less adversely affected by the virus, if you looked at the overall picture”, said Russell Viner, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, while addressing a press briefing on May 13. In Italy, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Spain, only around 1 to 2 percent of the total number of Corona Virus cases have been aged in those aged under 18, he noted. Your Excellency, while I cannot refute this scientific fact, we ought to bear in mind that, as earlier noted, children are not the only stakeholders of a school. Needless to emphasize the fact that students in tertiary institutions and those at University, are above the mentioned age bracket. France’s education minister, Jean Michael Blanquer told parents, it was more risky keeping their children at home, than sending them to school, now that the strict lockdown has been lifted. Blanquer said that the government’s priority was to avoid youngsters who struggle at school, or even at home, becoming “collateral damage” of the CoViD-19 crisis. Your Excellency, I strongly believe, together with your team, as you deliberate on the issue of re-opening education institutions, a reflection on Blanquer’s message to the parents in France, is necessary. Speaking in a press conference at the end of the meeting of education ministers of the European Union, Blazenka Divjak, the education minister for Croatia, said the lack of significant increase in cases, or any other negative impact should also be seen in the context of the special measures taken to make schools as safe as possible. She said, “What has been emphasized very strongly is that these schools have very highly guarded conditions like smaller groups of around 15 and very close co-operation with health ministers, and epidemiological services on a national level to provide schools and teachers and parents with very detailed recommendations on how to deal with the new situation. Arguably, Your Excellency, I believe we can borrow a leaf from Divjak’s words, as we plan to re-open our education institutions. My major worry, however, is around the size of the class in Croatia, compared to a typical class size in Uganda. “So far we have not had anything negative about re-opening of schools; but it is, probably too early to have final conclusions on that”, Divjak told journalists. Your Excellency, I believe it is also ideal to reflect on the words of Harry Quilter-Pinner, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Public Policy Research, London. She said, “…. However, the problems do not end with the re-opening of schools. The challenge of re-introduction is not just how to get back into the classroom. It is how you build on what was normal to recover and get back to where we were before”. Quilter-Pinner, argued that returning to school will require significant logistical challenges, with the need to maintain the recommended physical distancing and have fewer children in a class. “As a society, we have choices to make”, said Quilter-Pinner; such as addressing how big the risk of re-opening schools is, and whether we are willing to take that risk. Your Excellency, I also pray that in your deliberations, you equally reflect on the words of Alastair Sutcliffe, Professor of general pediatrics at the University College of London, who said, “These decisions are based on considerations of various known risks. One of the few positive things to come out of CoViD-19, is that it very rarely kills children, especially healthy children”. Sutcliffe, further argues that while re-opening schools, we need to consider this very low-risk versus other potential risks to children from not returning to school. With no clear end to the pandemic in sight, schools will have to be automatically, re-opened at some point, say experts like Marius Gilbert, head of the Spatial Epidemiology Laboratory at Universite Libre de Bruexelles, and also one of the advisors of the Belgian governmemt, on CoViD-19: In any case, you will have to learn to live with the virus. Your Excellency, don’t you think it is worth reflecting on Gilbert’s words in all your deliberations concerning the re-opening of education institutions? Personally, I believe, you should. Like France’s education minister, Jean Michael Blanquer, said, “…. Not going to school is more of a risk than the virus. Many doctors say it is less dangerous to go to school than to stay at home. Our children mustn’t be the victims of collateral damage, of our health measures”. He said 70% of the pupils were following classes at home, but that an estimated 500,000 youngsters were in danger of “dropping out”. Your Excellency, do we statistical figures of the number of learners following classes from home? Do we have a projection of the number of children who might not return to school? If not, then I would suggest that you bring the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBoS) on board, and direct them to do the needful. Your Excellency, it is not only important, but highly imperative, for us to weigh all options at our disposal, before we can think of re-opening education institutions.

Jonathan Kivumbi, Education Analyst. 0770880185. [email protected]

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