Candidate classes to resume amid safety and cost concerns 

Monday September 28 2020

Government, schools and parents will have to invest heavily in hygiene materials as students restart . PHOTO / RACHEL MABALA

By Paul Murungi

With the President’s announcement on the reopening of schools, a cloud of uncertainty was partially lifted for students and teachers who have been in a lockdown since schools closed on March 20 over COVID-19. 

 However, this has been limited to about 1.2 million candidates and final year university students.
Government remains optimistic that schools will resume in the next three weeks.  
However, the challenges of implementing SOPs as  already tested, is causing concern on whether the SOPs for schools will be followed. Some parents are skeptical about the safety of their children, among other things.

Alpha Murungi, a primary seven pupil at Hillside Primary School in Naalya, is ready to hit the ground running once schools resume. He says the long break has been nice but sometimes boring. 
In spite of being exposed to e- learning and coaching sessions, he misses the intangible value his teachers offer to him. “I am ready to go to school because it’s a little bit different to learn with teachers since there’s guidance and the teaching is good,” he says.

All that Murungi wants is a mask, gloves, and a hand sanitiser to start school which he hopes his parents can ably provide.

 However, Andrew Rugumayo, Murungi’s father, has other plans.  He says: “Personally, I am not comfortable, looking at what has been happening in other countries where they open schools and then another wave (of infection) forces them to close. If the situation worsens, then we shall have a big problem.”
He also has fears over the rising cases of COVID- 19 . In fact, he says his son will stay at home for a month before resuming classes with his colleagues. He reasons that this will provide him time to assess the situation .

“I would want to see the seriousness  with which the SOPs are going to be managed, not to leave it to the schools. They haven’t been working for some time, and yet the whole exercise is expensive. They don’t get support, to make sure that children and teachers are tested,” he laments. 


High costs and constraints
Meanwhile, the economic implications of Covid-19 continue to bite .
A brief paper on The socio-economic impact of COVID-19 pandemic on the urban poor in Uganda published in May, by the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development indicates that due to the lockdown , there has been a decline in the quantity of work, leading to decline in wages or income .  

Many urban poor have lost their sources of regular income, creating financial instability as they have little or no savings to resort to. It is estimated that about 23 percent are at risk of losing 100 percent of their daily income. Whereas, the research is limited to urban areas, there might be little or no difference for those in rural areas.

Schools have different fees policies; some require payment a fortnight in advance, while others prefer payment at the start of the term.
Economies of scale
Private schools rely on the principle of economies of scale to manage the high costs result ing from a high number of students.  The few candidates  will be expensive to maintain yet the fees  remain fixed.

In addition, private schools shall be expected to fund implementation of SOPs such as hand washing facilities, temperature  guns, face masks and disinfection facilities.

Paul Bigirwa, the director at Nyakigumba Secondary School in Fort Portal has 800 students, with only 120 school candidates. A number he feels is insufficient to pay costs at school. Bigirwa is contemplating cost cutting as a measure to continue with what he describes as ‘business’.

“We do not have the budgets to run the school. I have 34 teachers, and we are trying to bring down the number to 15. If students have to report on 15th October, there’s no money to pay for bills, food, water and other utilities. I think we shall have to charge parents for the bills. How do we run the school? One class cannot pay all staff members and maintain other utilities as well,” he adds.

In fact, Bigirwa says some parents who are still reeling from the pandemic economic effects have decided to withdraw their children until next year.

Filbert Baguma, the general secretary of the Uganda Teachers’ National Union (UNATU) concurs with Bigirwa that parents are overstretched financially.

“The burden of maintaining schools has to shift to parents, but they aren’t safe either because some have lost jobs, others are on half pay; others have been suspended, and yet you expect some money from them. Some may not be able to send their children back to school,” Baguma explains.
SOPs in public schools
Government’s proposal to distribute two masks for each public school has been met with mixed reactions, especially given the delay in the earlier national distribution of masks, with some Ugandans claiming to have never received a government mask to date.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a primary school head teacher in Masindi District, says the government has encouraged them to sensitise parents to provide masks for their children, without necessarily relying on the government alone.

She adds that the idea of isolating pupils to live within the school premises is still difficult since some parents may not have the requirements. Neither can most public schools afford to house teachers.

There’s still the probability a Covid- 19 case may occur in school. A number of questions arise from such a scenario.

UNATU’s Baguma asks: “How sure are we for both learners and teachers that they are safe?,” noting: “In the event that we hear that there’s a Covid- 19 case in the school, learners will be struggling to get out of school, and whether the school is government or private, it might close. The question is whether they will quarantine all the students and where do you quarantine them?”