The story of Peter Kiirya's suicide is still fresh in the minds of many a teacher across the country. Kiirya, was a Fine Art teacher at St. Mary's College in Buwenge Town Council, Jinja who died after committing suicide in April this year.
Speculation about Kiirya's death was rife and it circulated on Facebook and many teachers' WhatsApp groups. Some alleged that since his death coincided with closure of schools, the negative effects of the lockdown could have taken a toll on him- with lack of food being the catalyst.
However one of Kiirya's colleagues who spoke to Daily Monitor, refutes that the suicide had anything to do with food.
"Kiirya was a long serving teacher for more than 15 years and was dearly loved by administrators. Lack of food couldn't have been the cause," he says.
Kiirya's suicide has exposed the deeper and wider effects of the lockdown on private school teachers most of whom have resigned to fate after not being paid salaries since the lockdown started.
When President Museveni announced that schools would close for a month from March 20 for a period of 30 days. Teachers did not see any problem apart from a hectic return to a shortened first term.
However, it never happened and the school lockdown seems to have been extended indefinately with some suggesting the academic year be declared a dead one.
In May, in a bid to examine the impact of closing schools on teachers, the Uganda National Private Teachers Union conducted a mini- social media survey to understand the plight of private teachers and other private school workers who had not received salaries through the Covid-19 season. The response was enormous.
Juma Mwamula, the general secretary of the union says close to 500 private teachers responded within three days saying they had not received their salaries from the months of February and March. However, Mwamula notes that this number only represents a fraction of teachers suffering across the country.
Armed with the negative results from the mini survey, on May 11, the union wrote to the Covid-19 National Task Force in Office of the Prime Minister to express their dismay.
The letter sought to access relief items for vulnerable teachers and other workers in private schools.
The letter reads in part: "Uganda Private Teachers Union (UPTU) is dismayed to report the disheartening situation related to majority teachers and support staff in many private schools and how they are heavily hit by the raging Covid-19 pandemic," the letter reads in part.
"It should be noted that from the inception of lockdown in our country, schools were one of the first affected institutions and yet this lockdown came midway of the term during which majority institutions had not fully collected school fees which is the lifeline facilitator for all operations of those schools including salary payments," the letter reads in part, and continues to indicate that many workers from private schools have since February 2020 not received salaries and they are exempted from the government food relief programme.
However, since presenting this letter, there has been little progress and there is no response from the task force.
A new way of survival
With no cash flow to bank accounts at the end of the month. It is indeed a new normal as most have to find new ways to feed their families.
Malembe (not real names) a teacher at St. Joseph's Naggalama, a catholic founded school under Lugazi Diocese in Buikwe District who spoke on condition of anonymity says he was last paid in April and the school authorities told him there was no more payment since the school budget ends in the same month.
He survives on the savings he had but doubts whether this can sustain him if schools are not reopened. He notes that some private schools do not pay during the school holiday while others do.
"If this lockdown continues, all my plans are disrupted, besides I can't meet my family necessities," he says.
He says his colleagues in the profession have resorted to offering casual labour in the communities they live in, and his prediction is, that, it's likely many will opt out of the profession.
With a small plot of land, he says, he has resorted to doing small scale farming as a way to survive.
Another teacher from Kiribaki SS in Iganga District says she was last paid in March and would prefer that schools open up their coffers and pay teachers at least to the month of May.
"Working in private sector is volatile, you get paid at your boss' mercy even when the laws are clear," she says.
Most private school directors have insisted that it's only possible to pay for teachers' services if students were in school and were paying tuition.
Daily Monitor of June 17 reported that leaders of the National Private Education Institutions Association (NPEIA) while appearing before the Parliament's Committee on National Economy revealed how they were not able to pay teachers when there was no income in terms of school fees.
Instead, the association leaders asked government to pay salaries for teachers in private schools for at least a year. The leaders reasoned that this was in light of the heavy contribution private sector makes by employing close to 80 per cent of teachers in the country.
Sophea Tibasiima, a school director at Savanna SS, in Iganga District says private school proprietors are facing financial challenges as well.
"We get money from parents who take long to pay," she says. "When the President announced the lockdown, most parents had not cleared fees, and we were getting ready to call them. We cannot send students home everyday to collect fees. So, as proprietors, we don't have money per now to cater for teachers."
Tibasiima says her school extended some food relief to the teachers. "What we are doing is to give them some posho from our stores just as the President is doing."
However, on June 17, Daily Monitor reported that Dr John Chrysostom Muyingo, the Minister for Higher Education sunk the nail deeper by saying government did not have money to pay teachers from private schools following pleas from the school directors.
A case for government teachers
Whereas teachers in government schools are cushioned from the pandemic impact through a sustained monthly salary. A certain group of teachers in government schools who are contracted specifically to provide services using the school resources are reeling from the pandemic effects as well. Such teachers are known as board employees in government schools.
According Charles Ondoga, the Head teacher at St Joseph's College in Arua district, government doesn't fill all positions in schools and therefore such positions are filled locally with the school bearing the costs.
"It is a challenge to government schools to pay such employees, so, at the time they are not any different from teachers in private schools," he says.
Ministry of Education directive
On May 18, Alex Kakooza, the Permanent Secretary at Ministry of Education wrote a letter to private institutions owners to remind them of their obligation to pay teachers' salaries even in lockdown.
Kakooza wrote: "As you are aware, government is paying teachers and other public service workers their full salaries during the lockdown period. Ministry for Education and Sports Guidelines for Staff Employment in Private Schools and Institutions, Guideline No. 5(9) provides the school management shall pay the fulltime staff during both school term and holidays."
The reminder came at the time when the second lockdown was ending on May 19. Kakooza reasoned that this period was less than the time that was left on the first term of 2020, including holidays, when schools were forced to close. Therefore, the budget for salaries for the first term should be adequate to pay the staff for at least three months.
"What we are pushing is government to provide relief, first inform of, a partial payment of teachers' salaries; it should contribute at least 50 per cent for what schools pay," he says.
Mwamula argues that the National Task Force has collected 'a lot of money' which can partly be used to provide relief to teachers.
He also argues that school proprietors should have an open declaration of their bank accounts including pending loans or taxes to provide a clear view of their financial predicament. If there's money, then, some can be used in paying staff salaries.
There should be some relief in form of food supply with deliberate outreach to teachers, especially in private schools.
He says the community should support teachers who are facing a similar problem especially parents.
Malembe says government should release a partial payment from the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) since it seems, it's the only sector working.
"This is a lesson to teachers, we should generate a fund that should alleviate school workers in times of need," he sums up.
On June 16, leaders of the National Private Education Institutions Association while appearing before Parliament's Committee on National Economy asked that government considers reopening schools for the second term to run between August to October and third term through November to January.
Read: Private schools ask govt to pay teachers' salaries for one year
They also asked Parliament to create a fund through which they will access low interest loans to be able to recover from the negative impact of the pandemic.