The Education minister and First Lady, Ms Janet Museveni, has said the continued closure of educational institutions in the country over Covid-19 is intended to safeguard the health of youngsters who are Uganda’s future.
In a two-page statement on her official twitter handle, Ms Museveni asked parents to be patient as the government ramps up vaccination of the vulnerable groups and students aged 18 and above.
“The only reason the government has chosen to let schools remain closed could be simply to ensure that the lives of children remain safe from the danger that the Covid-19 pandemic brings to human life or to a family. Sometimes, I see the very rude insinuations you send to me in our dialogue, like, #just open schools,” she noted.
President Museveni first closed schools during the first lockdown that he imposed in March 2020, two days before Uganda registered its index Covid case.
Following months of the easing of restrictions and staggered reopening of schools, and on the eve of Primary 1-3 pupils resuming classes, the President imposed a second lockdown on June 18, 2021 amid concealed infections among students and widespread fatalities in communities.
With nursery and lower primary classes out of school for the nineteenth month, government agencies, among them Gender and Social Development ministry, and child rights organisations, have reported that school-going girls are getting pregnant in thousands across the country.
Elsewhere, Uganda National Teachers Union (Unatu) said an unknown number of teachers, out of jobs for a year-and-a-half, have ventured into other more profitable enterprises, including brick-making and businesses, and are unlikely to return to class.
Proprietors of private schools, some weighed down by bank loans, have sold their buildings or converted them to shops and accommodation while produce dealers are stuck with stockpiles they planned to supply to educational institutions.
However, the few international schools in the country, where children of the wealthy and powerful enrol, are operating, crowding millions of children from less successful families out of formal education --- for now.
The government has officially only permitted medical schools, whose students constitute a labour force for hospitals, to reopen.
In yesterday’s statement, the Education minister did not address the problem-infested education ecosystem or offer solutions on how to deal with the adverse ramifications of school children staying home without end.
Instead, Ms Museveni asked Ugandans to trust that the continued closure of schools is in the best interest of the children --- “our future” --- and the government benefits nothing from it other than protecting Ugandans from the pandemic.
“If the children, on the other hand, infect their parents, as most of them are day scholars, they would become orphans just like HIV/Aids did to many families. We were left with many child-headed families in Uganda at that time,” she noted.
However, the national umbrella body for private schools questioned the unique circumstance that in government’s view stops Uganda from reopening schools when all regional neighbours have done so.
“Let government just give the Ministry of Education a chance to go ahead and reopen schools using the strategies they have come up with for safe reopening of schools rather than pegging reopening on vaccinations,” said Mr Hasadu Kirabira, the chairperson of the National Private Educational Institutions Association (NPEIA).
He argued that with just about 1.4 million Ugandan receiving the jab, and three-quarters of these getting a single shot, the government plans to vaccinate all the vulnerable populations alongside students aged 18 and above is a mirage.
Uganda has in stock more than 640,000 doses of Moderna vaccines donated about a fortnight ago by the United States government, expects an additional 300,000 doses of Sinovac jabs, made partial down payment for 9 million doses of Johnson&Johnson vaccines and has through Covax ordered 18 million doses of AstraZeneca.
The delivery dates for the latter remain imprecise, with some Health ministry officials suggesting the vaccines could start arriving from next month and be spread out over a year, depending on the capacity of manufacturers.
Initially, Ms Museveni had proclaimed that students as young as 12 years should be vaccinated, but experts warned that it would be unfeasible and wasteful since children rarely get severely ill when they catch Covid.
The Education minister yesterday acknowledged that the government was being pressed by diverse groups, some rudely, to reopen school, which is the easiest thing to.
“The first question I would like to ask you is: Why do you think the government has chosen to keep schools closed? The teachers in the government schools continue to earn their salaries even as schools remain closed, so surely the government is not benefiting from school closure across the country,” she noted, invoking God’s power to do miracles for Uganda’s education sector.