Opinion Paper on Re-opening of Schools in Uganda: Thoughts for the Ministry of Education

James Lam Lagoro (PhD) and Joan Apuun Atim[1]

The government of Uganda on Sunday 20September 2020 announced the reopening of schools and institutions for finalists. This was in close consultations with the COVID-19 National Taskforce (C19NTF), Ministry of Health (MoH), Ministry of Education and Sports (MoE&S) and the office of the President of Uganda. This pronouncement received mixed reactions from both: private investors in education and the public at large. While some argued that schools were not ready for reopening owing to financial challenges faced by the institutions, others argued that, the hardships parents are experiencing due to the interruptions in their businesses, their work as a result of the lock-down, the upsurge of the Covid-19 cases and all the other related issues is devastating.

While we understand these sentiments, we reiterate the position taken by the World Health Organization (WHO); the world should be ready to live with the virus.[i] At another trajectory, we believe that, these variances in opinion are because of the learning interventions that the Government under the MoE&S rolled out upon school closure in March. Various models of learning continued under various nomenclature using virtual approaches i.e., the radio, TV and other online teaching strategies i.e., Kolibri channel.[ii] Further, the MoE&S published self-study materials for primary going children and secondary going young adults on its website and distributed these materials to homes.[iii] Other partners like Enabel in conjunction with MoE&S were also very instrumental at National Teachers’ Colleges in this cause. The President of Uganda also donated 20 billion shillings (US $5.4million) support to private schools in September.

Though we applaud these achievements, schools in the rural areas could have been disadvantaged due to a number of reasons, such as, poor mobilization of the parents and the rural communities, inability to distribute the learning materials, inability of the parents to afford the printing/photocopying cost of these materials and/or inadequacy of rural electrification amongst others. Briefly, the schooling communities in the countryside were not able to access the education interventions by the MoE&S at the same level. Schools in the urban centers had better access in most instances to media learning, newspaper pullouts for candidate, etc. as opposed to the school in the countrysides, which, definitely raises the question of parity in the intervention strategy. 

Further we also applaud, the efforts put in place by the government, private sector, philanthropists and the different donors. Despite these, Uganda and the other nations of the Sub-Saharan Africa still face a number of challenges, and the pandemic has not made the situation any better. Today more community cases and infections are on the rise within these countries. According to the Uganda’s Ministry of Health statistics, one month from the pronouncement of school reopening, Uganda now stands at 14,993 infections and 139 deaths as at 10/11/2020, 12:00 GMT. In Kenya, the numbers are up to 65,804 and 1,180 deaths, as the country leaps in thousands each day (11/11/2020). Teachers and students infections have gone up. This should be a cause of alarm as our healthcare systems are overwhelmed. This state of affairs puts countries at more worries in their struggles to alleviate the Covid-19 pandemic while keeping all other sectors functional.   

Although, earlier indication by the Ministry was that schools would reopen in 2021, schools have reopened for candidate classes only. The issue remains whether this is fair given the fact that government is supporting learning at all levels. Opening schools for the candidate classes’ only does not give justification for why government facilitated the different levels of learners from nursery to tertiary through the different platforms and organizations using the innumerable modes of learning support during this school closure period. If there is to be any justification of expenditure then there is need to assess the entire curriculum implemented during the six months of closure (also cognizant of the new curriculum implementation rolled out for the senior ones). In the alternative, we advocate for an accelerated recovery implementation of an accommodative curriculum with reduced holiday breaks starting November 2020 through 2021 to accommodate uniform progress for all levels. During this pandemic, the implementation of the curriculum adopted many features, which are not imbedded in the syllabus i.e., virtual engagement of learners using TV, Radios and other platforms. Most of our schools do not have these gadgets or softwares to adapt. Thus to find out whether the impact of teaching/learning used during the lockdown had a positive impact, the only logical approach would be to do evaluation.

Further, the Taskforce of the MoE&S should have advised government on how much the Ministry has spent in terms of government funds within the past 6 months. They should have evaluated how much government spent in terms of content, materials, overheads and all the practical details in the budgetary allocations done this period. These would have helped them see how the Ministry’s response to all levels of education including the candidate classes (to be assessed for promotion) would be justified. We further believe that the task for the government and MoE&S should really be, how to bring the children or students who did not benefit from government interventions in the last 6 months (the children of the rural poor) at par to those who were privy to government’s support in various ways. In this regard, one may argue national exams however, when it comes to the issue of Uganda National Examination Board (UNEB) preparing exams unconventionally, we know that UNEB has built a question data bank over the years, which evaluate our system of education year in and year out. The only itchy issue to ponder over is, assessing quality and relevance in a non-interactive mode of learning (face-to-face learning). Further the task of the examiners for the Academic Year (AY) 2020 would be to map out and comprehend what they would evaluate in view of the over 6 months lock down.

In terms of the higher education sub-sector, we equate the institutional closure for over 6 months a misjudgment of strategy. Higher education should have only closed for a re-strategy design given the justification that their capacities to manage on line and web supported teaching and learning is embedded in their programmes of studies. Programmes, which needed interactive (face-to-face) sessions, would be pure sciences. In Kenya, the University of Nairobi successfully managed programmes whose numbers of learners and specialists are comparatively low comfortably using online interactions models. The impact of ICT mediated support in teaching and learning has been enormous in higher education for decades. In South Africa, the Stellenbosch University stands out as one of the examples of this success as reported by the Task Team output document in teaching and learning (2013) which emphasized the use of Web studies, Blackboard, Moodle, Turn-it-in, clickers and or twitter as fundamental in Faculties’ Learning Management Systems (LMS).

Despite this, continued learning or attempts to see it done using the appropriate conventional modes cannot be denied with the different roles of key players i.e. students, parents and teachers. This notwithstanding, the funding needs in Uganda also remain urgent especially during these times. We are aware that parents fund half of the education budget in Uganda; 50% each year while the government and other external agencies share in the remaining percentage of which the larger parts of the funding goes to recurrent activities such as boarding, meals, school health, scholastic expenditures, personnel cost and transport. Correspondingly, there has been a great decline in budget allocations to the education sector; the second budget call circular for Financial Year (FY) 2019/2020 indicates this. Public expenditure in the education sector keeps reducing and ranges between 15 to 10% of the total government expenditure. Since 2012, it has been on a downward trajectory with FY2017/2018 at 10%, FY 2018/2019 at 10.4% and now 2020/21 reduced to 9% against the increased population of learners, which now stands at around 15 million. The amount proposed for FY2020/21 is shillings 3.286 trillion and according to the Minister of Education Janet K. Museveni (Hon), the same was greatly reduced and the reduction was on account of the donor-funded projects that are expected to exit the Public Investment Plan (PIP) upon conclusion.[iv] Thus, the funding needs in Uganda are huge and the country has not been innovative in its funding of education.

We thus recommend that the government implores a strategy of accelerated curriculum implementation because six months is not a big loss and is recoverable in subsequent years of serious curriculum reconstruction; noting that since the closure of schools, teaching and learning has been going on through the various modes. Invest in digital infrastructure: fibre optics, which is lacking in most rural areas. Digital technology, i.e. gadgets to aid online teaching, where there is no TV coverage, radios and in the alternative, solar-powered television sets would be a plus (Government had promised to purchase the same for those in the rural areas but has not delivered on this promise).[v] Teacher training; especially with inclusivity- education for all program. The use of mobile phones to promote digital application in teaching and learning should become mandatory in all schools. The adoption of structured and phased engagements of learners at all levels evaluated by the Inspectorate/Education Standard Agency and reported to the government taskforce to enable uniform progress by all the schools in the country. The government should also support financing of all student by 100% for at least 2 years to enable the parents recover from their financial recession.

In conclusion, we have the obligation to address ourselves specifically to the issue whether the MoE&S is right to re-open the country’s schools and institutions in phases amidst the COVID-19 upsurge. As we stated earlier, the decision was a mis-judgement of strategy for some levels of learning on the part of government, the MoE&S, the MoH and the C19NTF. The phased reopening of schools will create a breakage in the normal flow of the education calendar at all levels and this will be reflected in the life of the economy for many years to come as the turnover in the world of work will have a redundant gap. The level of teenage pregnancies will continue to rise because of redundancies the school age going children are experiencing. The response of the about 1.2 million students (Candidates) to school has been reported low and dragging country wide allegedly, because of the financial squeeze the parents are experiencing and the continued COVID-19 upsurge. The different stakeholder have to go back to the drawing board and rethink strategy.

[i] WHO declared the virus endemic in May 2020

[ii] Kolibri, sign in can be done at https://e-learning.education.go.ug/en/user/#/signin

[iii] Preparedness and Response Plan for Covid-19, April 2020. Available at http://www.education.go.ug/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Preparedness-and-Response-Plan-for-COVID19-MAY-2020.pdf

[iv] Education Sector budget reduced by UGX 111 billion- Janet Museveni. Accessible at https://www.independent.co.ug/education-sector-budget-reduced-by-ugx-111-billion-janet-museveni/

[v] Cabinet rejects dead year, opts to buy 10m radio sets. See https://www.monitor.co.ug/News/National/Cabinet-rejects-dead-year-opts-buy-10m-radio-sets-/688334-5576754-ary0pkz/index.html

vii. Darkwa O. & Mazibuko F., (2000). Creating Virtual Learning Communities in Africa: Challenges and Prospects (Article in First Monday, Peer-reviewed journal on the Internet) 70

ix Time for individual responsibility in fight against COVID-19. See nilepost.co.ug/2020/09/nabakooba)

[1] Dr Lam is a higher education specialist and Ms. Atim is an advocate and researcher (public finance).