Revised plan: Tertiary schools to reopen first

Students at  Nakawa Vocational Training Institute in Kampala during a practical lesson in October 2019.  Photo | Rachel Mabala

What you need to know:

  • Sources reveal that the Prime Minister said primary and secondary schools will wait until 5 million Ugandans in priorities groups are vaccinated.

Experts are today expected to meet with, and propose to, President Museveni that tertiary institutions be reopened in November, followed by secondary and primary schools.

The National Covid-19 Task Force agreed on the recommendation on Tuesday during a meeting held at the urging of the President to review their initial proposal to reopen schools next month, starting with lower primary classes.

Mr Museveni spurned that blueprint. Instead, he tasked the multi-disciplinary team to evaluate any plan to reopen educational institutions based on limited vaccination of teachers, support staff and threat of a third wave of the pandemic.

The government first closed schools during a lockdown in March 2020, days before Uganda registered its index Covid-19 case, and again during a second lockdown on June 18, this year, imposed to break a devastating pandemic second wave.  

Dr Dennis Mugimba, the Ministry of Education spokesperson, yesterday confirmed to this newspaper that technocrats on Tuesday held a meeting at State House Entebbe, which Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja chaired, and recommended a phased reopening of educational institutions.

“…we shall begin with small numbers in a phased manner [and] we shall consider those [learners] who have had the least time in school. It is along those lines that recommendations were made in yesterday’s meeting,” he said.

Sources that attended the Tuesday meeting, and spoke to us on condition that they are not named for confidentiality reasons, quoted premier Nabbanja proposing that “universities and other tertiary institutions are allowed to reopen” because the “students are old enough.”

The sources also revealed that the Prime Minister said primary and secondary schools will wait until 5 million Ugandans in priorities groups --- teachers, health workers, members of the security forces and those aged 50 and above --- are vaccinated possibly next year.

The government had purposed to inoculate 21.9 million, or half of Uganda’s population, as a precondition to reopen the economy and later, but jab shortage has meant only 1.6 million have received at least a first shot since the exercise was launched on March 10.  

However, top bureaucrats remain optimistic following the receipt or expected arrival in the country of about 30 million Moderna, Pfizer, Astra-Zeneca and Sinovac vaccines through bilateral donations and Covax – the World Health Organisation-created facility for poor nations such as Uganda to access Covid vaccines. 

Ms Nabbanja said last week that by December, the government will have vaccinated 4.8 million Ugandans considered highly vulnerable to Covid-19.

She was unavailable yesterday to speak on the reported proposal to reopen schools, starting with tertiary institutions in November.   

However, Education ministry’s Dr Mugimba confirmed the recommendation and said the President will make the final decision during today’s planned meeting at State House with members of the National Covid-19 Taskforce.

Prof Henry Kajumbula, the head of Infection Control and Prevention in the government Scientific Advisory Committee on Covid-19, told this newspaper yesterday that reopening tertiary institutions is aimed at balancing the Covid-19 response with other essential activities such as continuity of learning. But he said he didn’t attend the task force meeting on Tuesday.

He said considering the reopening of tertiary institutions is viable because “people are not many” in the institutions.

“They [the institutions] can be monitored more easily than when you get the rest of the children [in primary and secondary schools] back. They [the government] are trying to get a balance in managing the situation while going ahead with some things,” Prof Kajumbula said.

There are 54 Universities and about 700 technical and vocational training institutions across the country which, put together, broadly constitute the tertiary institutions cluster in the country.

These include about 10 public universities and 44 private universities. According to the data from the Ministry of Education, there are 258,866 students in universities and 109,305 students in technical and vocational institutions.

Prof Kajumbula said that if the President accepts to reopen the tertiary institutions, the government should closely monitor adherence to Covid-19 prevention measures, otherwise christened standard operating procedures or SOPs, and promptly close schools in breach.

“[The] National Council of Higher Education should be in position to monitor adherence and caution those violating SOPs. There should also be surveillance system that quickly picks up possible infections unlike last time where people were getting infected in schools, but cases were concealed,” he said.

The Professor urged the government to bolster its capacity to test for Covid-19 in schools and vaccinate learners where possible.

Mixed reactions
The Vice Chancellor of Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST), Prof Celestino Obua, said the university already has students offering health-related courses on campus; so, they are ready to receive more if the government gives them a greenlight.

“We have vaccinated all the health students who reported last month. If the government can provide us with more vaccines to vaccinate the expected students as they return, we shall be good to go. [The] government should also prioritise vaccination of university students in communities before they return,” he said. 

Prof Eli Katunguka, the vice chancellor of Kyambogo University, noted that the university senate has been meeting regularly to work out an academic programme suitable for reopening the institution and said that when the government releases the dates, they will just match the dates with the programmes.

“We have been ready for a long time and have just been waiting for the reopening dates from the government. The lecturers are ready [and] just waiting for a greenlight from the government,” Prof Katunguka said.

He added: “If [the] government plans to reopen [schools] in November, I welcome this move. We shall come up with a crush programme for our students when they report back.”

Meanwhile, the proposal to reopen only tertiary Institutions did not come as good news to private schools’ owners currently saddled with loans and were optimistic that their institutions, which are profitable investments, would reopen before this year ends.

Mr Hasadu Kirabira, the chairperson of the National Private Educational Institutions Association (NPEIA), said they have lost hope that schools will reopen soon and accused the government of practicing double standards in reopening of educational institutions.

“The recommendations do not benefit us at all. We only ask the government to release the schools’ calendar for next year and we prepare instead of causing a lot of alarm and confusion among the public,” he added.

What others say on school reopening

Moses Turineya, Technician
Our neighbours have all their children at school, did they vaccinate all of them? Why don’t we open schools first? They said they wanted all teachers vaccinated have they vaccinated all of them?

Martin Nambafu, Prosecutor
The total number of students is 15 million and vaccinating five million is just a third of them,   what work would they have done?

Gloria Abaho Businesswoman 
It is an ideal situation but how safe are the students in tertiary institutions and universities if not vaccinated? Some of them have health complications

Hakeem Waibi Clock repairer
Vaccinate all children and open the schools. Children are the easiest to immunise. Let’s learn from Kenya and Tanzania, what did they do to reopen schools? Did they vacccinate all learners?

Sarah Kente, Businesswoman
How about the elderly persons? What are they doing for them? Have they vaccinated all the people who were supposed to be vaccinated?

Mathew Lule, IT consultant
 Open all schools because students have been home for two years. If possible open all classes in a phased manner or invest in online schooling by removing taxes on data

Nicholas Semyalo businessman
It is the right thing to do but where will they get the ones joining university if they have not promoted other classes? Won’t they have  empty classes.

John Abitegeka, Police officer
Let them vaccinate all children because they said they wanted to first vaccinate all the teachers. It is even easier to vaccinate children when they are at school.

Stephen Sewaga, Plumber
Let them immunise all the children and open schools at once. Do they want children to fall sick and remain at home forever?

Olivia Bachu  Businesswoman
 Let universities and other institutions open after every student is immunised. Otherwise, students are getting spoilt at home. Parents cannot afford newspapers and television subscriptions anymore.


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