What started out as financial relief, steadily turned into a nightmare that I never anticipated,” says Ms Lindsay Mirembe, a mother of three.
Ms Mirembe, a full time employee, could not hide her excitement when she heard the news regarding suspension of pre-primary children from attending classes on the account of Covid-19 suppression measures.
For the working mum, the reality of waiting until five years hit much later.
It eventually dawned on her that the energy and time she needs to exert on the affairs of the three little ones is much more than what she thought.
She says: “I am now perplexed by government’s action to keep the nursery schools closed.”
The move to keep the early childhood development (ECD) under key and lock is actually rendering the growth of pre-primary children at risk.
ECD participation improves school readiness and in turn primary school performance. As pre-primary is now stripped away with the hope that parents will find time to teach their children until the age of five, most parents are not equipped to teach their children.
Considering the rise of dual income households, finding the balance between homeschooling and work is tough.
“I am trying to balance between my work schedule and teaching the children through giving them work on a daily basis and marking it. It is overwhelming but I want my children to compete for the job market with international pre-schoolers who are in school,” Ms Mirembe says.
Cabinet recently approved the re-opening of schools for non-candidate classes in a phased manner.
This was after the closure of schools on March Ist 2020 to curb the spread of the Coronavirus disease.
Cabinet statements indicated that the phased re-opening schools will ensure compliance with Covid-19 Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to allow completion of the academic year and progression of classes and semi candidate which include; Primary Six, Senior Three and Senior Five.
However, the Education Minister Janet Museveni insisted on leaving pre-primary classes closed until the country has received the Covid-19 vaccine.
Earlier the Education Minister attributed the move to health guidelines that do not permit children in pre-primary to put on masks as a preventative measure against Covid-19; saying it is not easy to open their institutions in fear of exposing them.
She further said such children require direct supervision which encourages close contact with teachers, something she says can accelerate the rate of virus transmission.
The suspension of pre-primary education has created anxiety among teachers, school owners and parents on what the future holds. School owners are now struggling with the costs associated with maintaining these premises considering that most were acquired through bank loans.
Alfred Geresom Musamali, a retired teacher and grandparent, says this has created a big challenge for some parents.
“We send children to school to fastrack their learning abilities through a structured activity programme - including reading, writing and speaking because we do not have these facilities at home,” he says.
The education system comprises teachers, school nurses, bursars, cooks and security guards as well as suppliers of books, pencils, pens, food and uniforms.
On average, about 150,000 teachers have lost an income for almost a year where 80 per cent of the 150,000 are largely women.
Much as the government is pushing for e-learning, some entities prefer setting family basic education also known as home learning centres which gather children around homes.
Family basic education is regulated by the government through policies such as Early Childhood Development (ECD) policy under the Ministry of Education and Sports, the National Integrated Early Childhood Development policy under the Ministry of Gender Labour and Social Development (MGLSD) and Universal Primary Education (UPE) policy.
In addition, the National Curriculum Development Centre (NCDC) is in charge of creating content for family basic education.
Joyce Nairuba, communications manager, Literacy and Adult Basic Education (LABE) says studies have shown that without ECD participation which improves school readiness, primary school attendance and performance may not be attained.
“The repercussions of stopping pre-primary education now will most likely be felt when these children finally join primary school,” Ms Nairuba says.
However, in Uganda, access to pre-primary education through formal nurseries is below 16 per cent. Out of the 3,614,827 children aged 3 to 5 years eligible for pre-primary education, only 563,913 (15.6 per cent) were enrolled in registered ECD centres in 2016.
Thus, she adds that even when ECD centres were open prior to Covid-19, over 80 per cent of eligible Ugandan pre-school children were not accessing any form of ECD.
Options for parents
For an effective home learning programme, several key factors must be considered. She notes that there is need for increased support for parents to work as co-teachers at home with simple instruction sheets to do this.
Secondly, parents and children will need learning materials such as story books, charts, games and self-study packs. Such materials fit for home-based learning need to be simple in content and suitable for use with out–of–school children.
“Government is not prepared for this move and neither are parents, as it is an emergency response,” she says.
Ms Delilah Aisu, a communication officer at Save Street Children Uganda, says children under the age of five are at risk of undergoing brain development challenges if there is no school, as it is between the age of 0 and 5 when their brain actively grows.
“If children are not cared for in terms of their learning needs, there is a high chance of delay or failure to enhance their grasping capabilities,” Ms Aisu says.
“Balancing work and family is challenging. Although working women had mitigated this by bringing in close relatives and helpers to support the children after their return from school, they have limited abilities to support the entire education of these children who no longer go to school,” Ms Aisu explains.
Mr Patrick Kaboyo, general secretary, Federation of Non-State Education Institution, says the cost of closing pre-primary school is huge and the country will grapple with it four to 10 years from now.
“The consequences will manifest in a slow and weak human capital for the country where competent and able professionals will be hard to get at respective cohorts when universities and training institutions require a workforce,” Mr Kaboyo notes.
Relevance of pre-schools
Ms Manuela Mulondo, Early Childhood founder of The Cradle says, in terms of estimation a pre-school or kindergarten will cost a parent between Shs1m and Shs1.5million per term depending on the type of school they go to. However for most pre-care centres, about 95 per cent of income goes into expenditures.
In terms of profit margin, it leaves you with about 5 per cent to negotiate with the banks for expansion.
Averagely, pre-schools will have about 40 pupils in total for day care, middle class and Top class. “The skills that children should be gaining within that critical stage depend on their age and the framework you are using,” Ms Mulondo says.