Eighteen months since the outbreak of Covid-19 in Uganda, the country's schools remain largely closed, trapping at home some 15 million learners and leaving parents in a dilemma.
The government touted virtual teaching and learning as the option, but the free radios that it promised, later substituted by word with television sets, have never been delivered, rendering online education only feasible for the wealthy whose children study at elite urban institutions.
In villages where majority Ugandans live, limited or no electricity, coupled with Internet hamstrings, have crowded millions of learners out of formal education, with many conditioned to life skills such as gardening and herding livestock.
Miles away in Kampala, the capital, health and education experts have asked the government to move cautiously with its plan to reopen schools, flagging at least 15 hurdles that education institutions should jump before full-throttle resumption of face-to-face classes.
According to them, education delivery at all levels, from pre-schools through universities, must prioritise safety of learners to avoid what transpired when government reopened all classes, except nursery and primary classes 1-3, last September after their closures in March 2020.
Officials said management of Covid-19 cases in both government and privately-owned schools remains a major challenge and needs to be handled with care when schools reopen.
Following the closure of schools for the second time in June, the second since March 2020 when the index pandemic case was confirmed in Uganda, Education inspectors accused proprietors and managers of a number of schools of concealing Covid infections over fears that the schools would be closed.
In a televised address, President Museveni said he had been briefed that some of the dispersed students infected their parents, including government officials, who died because owners of particularly private schools care more about money than the welfare of learners.
In its 2020-2021 inspection report, a copy of which Daily Monitor has seen, Ministry of Education officials disclosed plans to link schools to specific health facilities for early detection, reporting and referral for management of Covid cases among learners.
Mr Hasadu Kirabira, the chairperson of the National Private Educational Institutions Association (NPEIA), said government should strengthen Covid-19 surveillance and come up with strategies of case and emergency management in schools.
He urged the government to train schools' nurses to manage mild Covid cases.
"The problems of Covid-19 cases in schools started with insufficient surveillance by both the ministries of education and health. When schools reopen, the government should have a clear inspection plan to ensure schools are inspected at least twice a month," he said.
The inspectors reported that private schools lacked resources to implement a raft of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) prescribed by the Ministry of Health to gurantee safety of learners.
The inspection teams were led by the Director of Education Standard, Dr Kedrace Turyagyenda, and Secondary Education Commissioner Benson Kule.
Dr Turyagyenda, writing about findings of four inspections conducted between November 2020 and June, noted: "... most of the items purchased like soap for hand washing and sanitizers had run out of stock. Schools need more financial support to procure these basic items ... "
The report adds: "It was noted that most private schools were finding it costly to procure the items required. Some of the facilities like foot-operated hand-washing equipment and calibrated temperature guns were found not commensurate with numbers in the schools."
Private schools have on several occasions asked the government to bail them out with a stimulus package to solve some of the challenges they have faced since Covid-19 onset.
Ms Oliver Nambi, the Busoga High School head teacher, said most schools are bankrupt because they entirely depend on tuition charges to operate.
She said the government should release money to enable educational institutions implement SOPs at least two weeks ahead of the reopening of schools.
The educationist also asked the government and Ministry of Education to recruit more teachers to be able to handle the increased number of class streams created by the social distancing requirement.
There has been increasing concern voiced by school proprietors that many teachers who have been out of jobs have engaged in other activities and are unlikely to return to teach.
This newspaper has chronicled stories of teachers turning into security guards, boda bodas, brick makers and chapatti sellers.
"In most private schools ... most of them were doubtful as to whether all their teachers would return in case of full re-opening for all classes. It was observed, however, that most private schools don't have permanent teachers because majority of them fish their teachers from government schools, making the situation in government schools even worse," the report reads in part.
Proprietors and heads of schools have been asked to budget for the single-seating to be able to manage the issue of social distancing among learners in classrooms.
According to the Education ministry report, desks seating three learners occupy a lot of space and it would be hard for most schools to observe the two-metre social distancing measure.
The inspectors recommended that Health ministry officials should consider reducing the recommended social distance from two metres to one metre.
"The findings revealed that although the schools tried their best to keep social distancing, most of them found it challenging due to the type of furniture in place. It was not possible to keep the two-metre distance with desks, hence the schools had two learners per desk," the report further reads.
The inspectors found some learners and teachers attending classes in congested classrooms while not wearing masks.
In interviews with this newspaper, different experts called for the review of the school curriculum by extracting the most important content for learners to cover.
This followed reports by the Education ministry about low syllabus coverage in all classes due to disruptions that have been caused as a result of intermittent closure of schools.
Mr Fagil Mandy, a former commissioner in the Ministry of Education, told this newspaper that the government should work hand-in-hand with the national examinations body, Uganda National Examinations Board (Uneb), to ensure questions set for final papers are from areas taught within a short time.
Mr Mandy also called for the retooling of teachers through short courses on how to deliver the shortened curriculum and how to handle learners when they return.
The secretary general of the Uganda National Teachers Union, Mr Filbert Baguma, said failure by schools to erect border barriers is rendering them vulnerable to intruders who present risk theft and infection school community.
The government report shows that "in some schools, learners were found sharing beds. This can easily lead to quick spread of Covid-19 and other diseases. It can also result in the vice of homosexuality and lesbianism".
Sources told this newspaper that experts are discussing the proposal to ban boarding for some classes to ensure learners, particularly in lower classes, study from schools near their homes while commuting.
Whereas the government pegged reopening of schools on vaccination of teachers and non-teaching staff, as well as students aged 18 and above, scientists indicated that reopening will also depend on the prevailing condition and number of cases in the country.
The issue of transportation of learners in school shuttles is another loophole that should be addressed, the inspectors noted.
When government reopened schools last September, the Ministry of Education banned transportation of learners by public service vehicles.
What some stakeholders say...
James Wasike, teacher, "Opening schools is okay but government should consider the plight of parents who lost their jobs and cannot afford school fees. What strategy is there to ensure schools reduce tuition to make it affordable?"
Irene Sizomu, accountant, "Last year, government reopened schools for one month and some parents paid full tuition. We are now hearing of third and fourth waves; is government ready to keep children at school when we get these waves?"
Reste Diana businesswoman, "Let schools remain closed until next year so that they use these remaining months to put in place all measures to ensure adherence to the Standard Operating Procedures and reopen at once."
Martin Ggombe Ssekito, mechanic, "Has government put in place measures to ensure all the children and teachers are vaccinated before they reopen schools? We are hearing some people decampaigning the exercise."
Innocent Katusiime, self employed, "Before schools are reopened, government should ensure we have all the vaccines we need in the country. We should measures to ensure there is no congestion in schools."
Moses Eruku, cleaner, "All teachers must be vaccinated and schools should be conditioned to observe Standard Operating Procedures at all times, not like it happened last year."
Teopista Katusabe, housewife, "I have heard that some teachers are opposed to vaccination and are decampaigning it. Let us ensure a good number of children and teachers get vaccinated before reopening."
Harriet Ndimuntuma, Market vendor, "Let government first ensure we have vaccines all over the country. I have been to KCCA Health Centre III in Namuwongo, Kampala more than four times but I have not received a jab for lack of vaccines."
Expedito Ntege, businessman, "Let us first get all Ugandans vaccinated before we think of reopening schools. Government has the money to buy the vaccines we need."
Martin Jooga, accountant, "The last time we rushed to reopen schools, we ended up closing them almost immediately. Let us first sensitise the country about the implications of whatever action government intends to undertake."