Education ministry, heads review options on school reopening

Sunday May 24 2020

Back home. Students at the Old Taxi Park in

Back home. Students at the Old Taxi Park in Kampala after schools closed on March 19. The Education ministry is yet to announce guidelines on reopening institutions of learning. PHOTO BY DAVID LUBOWA 

By Isaac Mufumba

On Monday, President Museveni directed the Ministry of Education and Sports to come up with an action plan within a fortnight to guide the reopening of schools to pupils and students in candidate classes and finalists in universities and tertiary institutions.

It was not possible to ascertain from the Permanent Secretary of the ministry, Mr Alex Kakooza, how far they had gone towards implementing Mr Museveni’s directive.
Until late on Friday afternoon, Mr Kakooza was held up in a meeting, which a source in the ministry indicated was working on the release this week of a circular, in which guidelines for the reopening of the schools and institutions will be disseminated to the public.

Welcome development
Many parents received President Museveni’s March 18 announcement that Cabinet had made a decision to close education and institutions and slap a ban on public gatherings with relief. The World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) move to declare Covid-19 a pandemic had made many panic. It was a relief having them back at home.
However, the costs associated with having the children back home, have left many wondering whether they are not better off with them back in school.

“They are teenagers. I look at them eating huge amounts at every meal, but cannot stop them because I know that they are growing up and their bodies are demanding for the food. That has been my story for the last two months and it has been at a very big cost to me. I am now spending money that I do not have,” Mr Alphone Bwomezi, a teacher, told Sunday Monitor in Jinja District.

Besides having to meet the high cost of putting food on the table, Mr Bwomezi said he has been spending lots more on utilities like electricity, water, telephone and Internet connectivity to keep his teenagers busy.
“In light of that, I think the decision by the President to reopen schools to some of them is great. My costs are surely going to go down,” he said.

School fees worry
However, the biggest talking point now as parents prepare to send some of the pupils and students back to school is around school fees and requirements.
Primary and Secondary school education in Uganda is quite pricy. Schools fees in some schools range between Shs900,000 and Shs3 million. There is no longer much of a difference whether one is a private school or a government-aided school.

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Some government schools actually outcompete private schools in terms of fees demands.
At the same time, some schools make it mandatory for students to pay development fee, library fees, foundation body fees and contributions towards acquisition of transport in the form of buses to transport students and teachers and lorries to ferry some of the schools’ cargo.

They often have to provide reams of photocopying paper, meet the cost of school uniforms, identity cards, toilet rolls, brooms, buckets, soap and others requirements. What is required of the students varies from term to term.

Some of the schools have always tried to hide behind the need to pay debts and cater for students and teachers’ welfare and salaries to justify what some parents have always deemed to be outrageous demands.

By the time the schools were ordered to close, there was still about a month to the end of the first term of the primary and secondary schools’ calendar. Some parents are, therefore, inclined to think that they should not be called upon to pay more in terms of fees or even provide additional requirements given that schools may not have exhausted whatever they had paid.

“I do not think it would be fair for the schools to ask us for more money. Let them first use some of the balances they kept,” Mr James Lutale, a parent of two boys, said.

There are also those parents who think that since they had paid the school fees in full yet the term never ended, they should not be asked to pay. Those who had not completed payment argue that they should also not be asked to pay up because the term was never completed.

There are, however, indicators members of the National Private Educational Institutions Association (NPEIA) will not be listening to that. “Parents should not think that what they had paid (in school fees) last term is what is going to sustain their children in school (when the schools re-open)”, Mr Asadu Kirabira, a member of the association told the media during a press conference in Kampala on Thursday.

A formal statement that the national chairperson of NPEIA, Mr Mujumba John Bosco, issued after Thursday’s presser, called on parents to pay up.

“We propose that they pay the fees since schools are to begin a new term and its incumbent upon schools to ensure that all the required content is to be covered within the prescribed academic year and further all school operational costs such as rent charges, electricity, water, machinery and plant maintenance continued to be met,” the statement read in part.

A head teacher of one of the government-aided schools who preferred not to be named, is supportive of the official position taken by NPEIA, insisting that parents should be paying up when the schools re-open.
“Even when schools are not operating, one has to maintain the structures and pay support staff. What was paid for first term has since been exhausted. Parents have to come in,” he said.

Cracks in NPEIA
It would, however, seem that not all members of NPEIA are reading from the same page. Mr Benedict Saazi, a member of NPEIA branch in Rubaga Division, Kampala, who is also the president of the National Association of Christian Schools of Uganda, said members of the association in Rubaga Division are opposed to having parents paying more fees.

“By the time the term ended, others had paid the fees and also provided the requirements. Our thinking is that a parent who had paid should not be asked to pay more money. Let those who had not paid clear the balances,” Mr Saazi told Sunday Monitor on Friday.

Decisive move
If it were to be left to the education administrators to decide, parents would be required to pay, but that decision is now in the hands of the Ministry of Education’s Covid-19 taskforce.
Mr Patrick Muinda, an assistant commissioner at the ministry, said they will be making a formal communication soon concerning the guidelines for re-opening of schools.

“The ministry is going to guide on what should be done and what should not be done. Parents should not worry about that. There will be a very clear communication on school fees,” he said.
Schools have a long history of ignoring guidelines issued by the Ministry of Education. For example, in February 2018, the ministry warned against hiking school fees and asking for so many requirements, but the schools ignored the directive. Will they adhere now?

Warning

While the Ministry of Education taskforce welcomed the idea of allowing candidates to report first to free up space in the school, the trouble is still on when continuing students should report. But the a source who attended a Wednesday meeting between Health and Education ministry officials said the health experts warned the education officials against allowing large numbers in school. The experts said they are looking at reopening schools fully next year.

“The only thing that is scary is that the health experts said they will not make any decisions for us. They said they will present us with the facts and what they think we should do. But they will not tell us how or what to do. That means we will go back to our stakeholders?” the source said.
“There are many questions to be answered. How do we start? How do you ensure that this girl who stays in Namasuba goes to Kitante Primary School?” the source added.

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