Covid-19: Why we should reopen schools now

Saturday July 4 2020

Students wait to be picked after schools closed

Students wait to be picked after schools closed on March 19. PHOTO / ABUBAKER LUBOWA 

By Mukwanason A. Hyuha

After its outbreak in Wuhan, China, around December 2019, Covid-19 was declared by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a pandemic.

Thereafter, WHO issued guidelines aimed at stemming the spread of the disease. Some of the guidelines include social distancing (keeping a distance of at least two metres between any two persons), not touching one’s sensitive parts on the face—that is, mouth, eyes and nose unnecessarily, washing one’s hands regularly, wearing a mask to cover one’s mouth and nose, avoiding sneezing in the proximity of other people, and so on.

The Government of Uganda, on top of declaring a dusk-to-dawn curfew and a partial lockdown, immediately announced measures to curtail the spread of the disease in the country. These included, inter alia, closure of all mosques, churches, bars, arcades, open-air markets, and all academic institutions.
Herein I focus on the issue of reopening the country’s education institutions.

The lockdown is currently being eased gradually. Nevertheless, the education institutions are still under lock. They were initially supposed to reopen on April 27, then reopening was postponed to June 4, thereafter, postponed for one month, and then indefinitely.

However, on June 9, the President informed the country that some parents were urging the government not to reopen the institutions until a vaccine or cure is discovered.

The President’s message was echoed by Mr John Chrysostom Muyingo, the State Minister for Higher Education:
“Although plans to reopen are underway … [some] parents … are against the move,” Mr Muyingo was quoted in the June 25 New Vision as saying.

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The nature of education institutions in Uganda
Over the last 25 years or so, there has been a rapid increase in the number of education institutions in the country. For example, the number of universities has skyrocketed from one before 1988 to more than 50 by last year. The number of students, private schools, student hostels and similar facilities has also tremendously increased during this period.

As I highlighted previously, the rise in the number of Uganda’s education institutions has not proportionately been matched with expansion in both academic and physical infrastructure, and in teaching personnel, leave alone educational necessities such as books, computers, leisure facilities, among others.

The ultimate result has been extremely sub-optimal teacher-student ratios in institutions across the board, inadequate educational material such as books, computers, leisure facilities, overcrowded classrooms and lecture halls, vis-a-vis the optimal classroom-student ratio of 1:54. Sometimes a classroom supposed to accommodate 54 learners now accommodates twice the number or more.

The other result is general poor academic standards across the board, and overcrowded accommodation facilities (dormitories, halls of residence and hostels).

There is also poor and dilapidated physical and academic infrastructure in many institutions, especially schools in rural areas, inadequate funds and personnel to run the institutions efficiently, both in public and private education institutions, low levels of remuneration across the board; most of the time, salaries and wages are below the living wage.
As a result of all the above, social distancing is virtually impossible in such situations. Moreover, hardly any academic institution has sufficient funds to afford implementation of testing students, teachers and other employees for Covid-19 on a regular basis, let alone purchase adequate sanitisation facilities, guarantee regular flow of water to the institution for regular hand-washing. If all, or some of the institutions are unable to do all these, does the government have the capability to step in where necessary?

Education institutions: To open or not?
There are merits and demerits of reopening education institutions. The main argument in support of not reopening the institutions is that learners should not be put at the risk of contracting Covid-19 in the name of education. It is emphasised that life is far more valuable than education. However, one has to answer at least two basic questions – when is the vaccine or cure to be found; in 18 months as suggested?

If no vaccine or cure is found in 18, 24, 36, or 48 months, or beyond, should the institutions still remain closed?
What are the likely consequences of keeping the education institutions closed for longer periods?

Clogging of the education system: The longer the institutions are kept closed beyond one year, the more the education system will be clogged. For example, if the closure lasts for two years, then no students will graduate from the universities for two years. Further, there will be terrible damage if we lose a generation of children who have been stopped from going to school for several months or even years. All this will impact negatively on the country’s human resource plan. Thereafter, how will the system be unclogged? What will be the actual and opportunity costs of the clogging and unclogging?

Paying teachers and other personnel in public institutions for no work done: Unless laid off compulsorily, the teachers and other employees in public education institutions will continue being remunerated for no substantial work done. What cost does this have on the Consolidated Fund?

Problem of teachers not employed by government: Teachers not on government payroll in public and private academic institutions are normally not paid when the institutions are not in operation. Indeed, during this lockdown, most of them are receiving no remunerations from the institutions.

How will the obvious plight of these Ugandans be handled?
Financial sustainability of private institutions: The major source of operational funds for the private institutions is the tuition and other user fees paid by their learners. How will the institutions be maintained for long without the learners? Won’t many of them collapse—thereby having negative, far-reaching ramifications on the entire education system?
How will the government deal with learners whose institutions have collapsed? The emergence of learners whose institutions have closed will lead to immense social and economic problems.

Possibility of increasing student attrition rates, particularly regarding females: The impact of a prolonged lockdown on pupil and student attrition or drop-out rates should also be taken into account. This is so in view of a possible rise in teen pregnancies, child labour, child delinquency, and other types of child abuse.

One expects parents, particularly in rural areas, to engage their sons and daughters in farming, herding cattle and other child labour activities. Hence, child labour is likely to increase. This will increase the attrition rates.

Possible rise in criminal activities: Prolonged closure of the institutions is likely to result in increased criminal activities such as domestic violence, incest, defilement, rape, theft, juvenile crimes, among others.

Ineffective e-learning project: It is now a public secret that online teaching and learning benefits just a few.

During celebrations to mark the Day of the African Child on June 16, children decried poor access to e-learning,
Coupled with the absence of electricity, frequent power blackouts, limited access to TVs and radios, among other challenges, it is not difficult to see the problems associated with implementation of e-learning in Uganda.

Government has also rolled out a home-schooling programme, whereby all villages are supplied with education materials for all categories of learners. Unfortunately, the materials are extremely insufficient. Sometimes a village receives just a copy of the materials to serve numerous learners. Hence, the home-schooling intervention also currently appears to be ineffective.

As WHO emphasised, Covid-19 is to stay with us for a long time, just like HIV/Aids and malaria. Hence, we have to learn to live with it; permanent, partial or total lockdown is, therefore, impossible. This means with or without a vaccine or cure, institutions shall have to reopen in the presence of the disease, just like they have been operating in the presence of HIV/Aids, malaria and other diseases. Nevertheless, a few vital questions need due consideration and/or reasonable responses.

Given the nature of Uganda’s education institutions, can social distancing be maintained, particularly with respect to primary and secondary schools or university hostels?

How is the issue of day scholars and non-resident students, teachers and staff in day and boarding schools to be handled?

Can the measures of sanitisation of facilities and frequent washing of hands be maintained day in day out in all day and boarding schools and halls of residence and hostels?

Are the institutions capable of enforcing these measures in the period when no vaccine or cure exists? Do they have adequate personnel to implement this on a sustainable basis?

Way forward
Authorities appear to insist that for schools to reopen, all learners and instructors must undergo mandatory Covid-19 testing, and that issues of social distancing, sanitisation of physical infrastructure and visitors to the institutions, must be addressed.

Tanzania scheduled to reopen schools on June 20, while schools in Senegal reopened recently. In fact, schools are reopening in countries around the world on the basis of reliable scientific evidence that children are largely unaffected by Covid-19 and are minimally contagious when they get infected.

For example, reopening of schools in 22 European countries has not led to any significant increase in infections among children, parents or staff. Note that the reopening is occurring even in countries with a daily infection rate of 500 or more.

Further, … scientific reports … stress that from early on, there were indications that children, miraculously, were not suffering from Covid-19 to anywhere near the extent as adults.

A report summary of 72,314 cases by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association on February 24, noted that just one per cent of patients were under 10 years old, and another one per cent were aged between 10 and 19. Further, there were zero deaths in the youngest cohort.

Accordingly, in Italy, just about two per cent of cases have involved children or teenagers. Remarkably, just two out of the country’s roughly more than 30,000 recorded deaths from the disease involved people under the age of 19. Data from New York City, the epicentre of the pandemic in the United States, shows seven deaths for those under 18 years of age, out of more than 14,000 in total

Similar evidence has been adduced by scientists in Iceland, Canada and Australia, among other countries. The Ugandan scientists may wish to offer their evidence/opinions on this matter.

In any case, are the learners—particularly those from poverty-stricken families (who are the majority)—in rural areas and our crowded slums in urban areas currently observing social distancing? Generally, children and many adults are currently not observing social distancing and many other guidelines, especially in rural areas.

With a scarcity of TVs and radios in impoverished families, it is foolhardy to expect social distancing during e-learning, or while using the extremely few copies of home-schooling handouts sent to villages by government. Thus, with or without reopening education institutions, social distancing, for example, is ultimately impossible in villages and slums.

As noted above, Uganda is bound to face serious consequences if academic institutions are not reopened soon. This will be in addition to the imminent economic recess induced by the pandemic. Hence, my view is that the government should not be too risk-averse; education institutions should reopen now (starting with finalist classes). We have to learn to live with the new normal.

Finally, note that some countries are considering reducing the social distancing requirement from two to one metre.

Prof Hyuha is a former academic registrar of Makerere University, and now heads the
Centre for Critical Thinking and Alternative Analysis

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