Uganda reopens schools after world’s longest Covid-19 shutdown

KAMPALA (NYTIMES) – Uganda reopened its schools Monday (Jan 10) after the longest pandemic-prompted shutdown in the world, but educators and others say that the closing has taken a lasting toll, eroding decades of classroom gains in the East African nation.

Despite efforts at remote education, more than half of Uganda’s students effectively stopped learning after the government ordered classrooms closed in March 2020, a government agency has found.

And the outlook is not optimistic: Up to a third of students, many of whom took jobs during the pandemic to support their struggling families, may not return to the classroom.

Thousands of schools, themselves under financial stress, are not expected to reopen their doors. And countless teachers will not come back either, having turned to other work after losing their income during the shutdown.

“The damage is extremely big,” said Ms Mary Goretti Nakabugo, executive director of Uwezo Uganda, a Uganda-based non-profit that conducts educational research. Unless there are intensive efforts to help students catch up, she said, “we may have lost a generation”.

Among that generation is Kauthara Shadiah Nabasitu, 15, who has abandoned plans to continue her education in high school. Though elementary education in Uganda is free and is intended to be compulsory, high school education is discretionary and tuition-based.

“I am a person who wants to study,” said Nabasitu, who started selling juice and braiding hair in the low-income Kamwokya neighbourhood of Kampala to help her family during the shutdown.

It was important, though, Nabasitu said, for her to “help my mum with the burdens that she carries”. Her mother, a vegetable seller, told her that she would not be able to pay for her high school education, Nabasitu added.

Nabasitu said that she missed the safety and sense of community that school offered, a loss felt by her friends as well. During the pandemic, she said, some friends became pregnant and will not return to school either.

Many countries closed schools on and off over the past two years, but only six nations – Uganda, the Bahamas, Belize, Brunei, the Dominican Republic and the Philippines – had continued to impose nationwide closures, according to Unesco.

Uganda’s shutdown, instituted shortly after the first Covid-19 cases were detected in the country, was the longest of all, Unesco said – affecting 10.4 million students – and the duration has been the subject of debate, domestically and internationally.

“Our call during Covid-19 has been that schools should be the last to close and the first to open,” said Mr Robert Jenkins, global director of education at Unicef. “In the case of Uganda, the scale and the duration have been unprecedented.”

Ms Janet Museveni, the Ugandan minister of education and the wife of President Yoweri Museveni, said the shutdown had been introduced to curb the risk of children spreading the virus to their parents.

The children, she said, “would become orphans – just like HIV/Aids did to many of the families.”