The tale of the two friends — one a dropout, one joyfully resuming her education – is also the tale of millions of Uganda’s children as many went back to classes on Monday after a nearly two-year shutdown of schools induced by Covid-19.
The shutdown in the east African country was the longest disruption of educational institutions globally due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to the United Nations.
When the closure went into effect, 15.5 million students had their education disrupted, according to Dennis Mugimba, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Education.
Universities and higher education students had returned to school in a phased manner, but kindergarten and lower primary students, approximately six million students, hadn’t stepped in a classroom until today, said Mugimba.
“I am excited that I am going back to school. It has not been easy for me to keep safe at home for this long but I thank God, who has kept me safe,” 16-year-old Rachael told Reuters.
“I have all along longed to go back to school so that I can achieve my dream career of becoming an accountant.”
‘A necessary closure’
But Ugandan officials expect a third of children who were in school when the pandemic began will not return, which could prove a heavy blow to the future prospects of the new generation in a country with one of the world’s youngest populations and already struggling with high unemployment and poverty.
The long closure was necessary to protect children and their families as Uganda tried to curb the spread of Covid-19, Janet Museveni, Uganda’s first lady and Minister of Education said in a statement last September.
“We choose to be patient and continue to vaccinate our teachers, learners above 18 years of age and the vulnerable population so that we can be confident enough that we have given some protection to a critical mass of our population,” Museveni said.
There will be a learning curve for students and educators to get back on track, especially for large swathes of students who had to abandon their studies over the last two years out of a lack of resources or supervision for remote learning, Mugimba acknowledged.
Six-year-old learners will automatically be placed in grade one, regardless if they’ve gone through kindergarten or not. Students will also be taught an abridged curriculum with remedial lessons, he said. Under that plan, the hope is that students will be able to catch up in two to three years time.
The school closures, alongside other strict measures to stem the spread of the virus, helped keep the number of Covid-19 deaths low in Uganda. The country has so far recorded around 153,000 cases of Covid-19 and about 3,300 deaths.
But the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF says the shutdown was too long and costly for Uganda’s young.
“Millions of children are at the risk of losing the right to education,” said Munir Safieldin, UNICEF’s Uganda country representative. He cited a state planning authority projection that a third of students would never return to school.
A substantial number of those students will not return to school due to early pregnancy and child labor after having been out of classrooms for so long,…