Uganda reopened its schools Monday 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 Mary Goretti Nakabugo, executive director of Uwezo Uganda, a Uganda-based nonprofit that conducts educational research. Unless there are intensive efforts to help students catch up, she said, “we may have lost a generation.”
The long closure was necessary to protect children and their families as Uganda tried to curb the spread of Covid-19, Janet Museveni, Uganda’s first lady and Minister of Education said in a statement last September.”
We choose to be patient and continue to vaccinate our teachers, learners above 18 years of age and the vulnerable population so that we can be confident enough that we have given some protection to a critical mass of our population,” Museveni said.
There will be a learning curve for students and educators to get back on track, especially for large swathes of students who had to abandon their studies over the last two years out of a lack of resources or supervision for remote learning, Mugimba acknowledged.
Six-year-old learners will automatically be placed in grade one, regardless if they’ve gone through kindergarten or not. Students will also be taught an abridged curriculum with remedial lessons, he said. Under that plan, the hope is that students will be able to catch up in two to three years time.
The school closures, alongside other strict measures to stem the spread of the virus, helped keep the number of Covid-19 deaths low in Uganda. The country has so far recorded around 153,000 cases of Covid-19 and about 3,300 deaths.
But the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF says the shutdown was too long and costly for Uganda’s young.
“Millions of children are at the risk of losing the right to education,” said Munir Safieldin, UNICEF’s Uganda country representative. He cited a state planning authority projection that a third of students would never return to school.