KAMPALA – I read in the New Vision recently that the association of secondary schools’ head teachers has together with parents asked government to delay the re-opening of schools. They are worried of overcrowding and maintaining the required hygiene at schools. President Museveni in his address to the nation on matters regarding COVID-19 on 4th May, 2020 echoed similar sentiments. On his part, the director of basic and secondary education is quoted to have said “they have proposed to government that schools should remain closed until they are 100% sure the virus has been contained”. This is an interesting remark from a high ranking government official because it presupposes that the Ministry of Education and Sports (MOES) has no plan B.
Almost everyone is praying for a breakthrough for COVID-19 but we must prepare for the worst case possibility – what if no vaccine is developed. If that is the case, we may have to live with COVID-19 and testing and physical tracing will become part of what we have to do daily. Does it mean schools will be closed forever? We have never had a breakthrough with an HIV vaccine but somehow we have had to live with it for more than 30 years. Of course I am aware of the similarities and differences between HIV and COVID-19. Government must provide a framework for living with COVID-19 in case we can’t stamp it out.
Some countries like Norway and Denmark have started allowing schools to open. Of course we must keep mindful of the fact that Uganda is fundamentally different from the setting of the developed countries yet we will have no alternative but to adapt some of their best practices. Countries that have allowed schools to reopen have ensured small, closed classroom groups that serve a consistent group of students and teacher(s). Classroom teachers are ensuring that students wash hands upon entering and leaving the classroom. They have created regular cleaning practices for desks, equipment and other classroom materials. In the classroom, sitting arrangements have been rearranged so desks face in the same direction instead of facing each other to reduce transmission caused from talking, coughing and sneezing. Additionally, schools have ensured availability of appropriate cleaning supplies. Children are constantly educated on the importance of avoiding touching their faces throughout the day, and washing their hands when they do. Schools are providing incentives like classroom recognition for proper and thorough hand washing. Schools are ensuring sick policies are supportive of students and staff staying home when sick. In any case, there are regular temperatures checks for students and staff to ensure those who develop symptoms are not attending school.
These policies can be implemented in Ugandan schools with support of government and parents. Government may have to provide additional funding to the education and health sector in the next financial year by cutting budgets of other sectors that may not be of priority. Additionally, tough measures can be devised for overcrowding that is peculiar to majority of the schools in Uganda. However, there are other schools with class rooms and dormitories that are virtually empty yet they are aided or run by government. In my article in the Daily Monitor 24th February 2020, “Rectify gaps in selection process”, I noted that the Education Management Information Systems (EMIS) is not working as expected. I hope leaders in the MOES took note of this absurd fact. EMIS was conceived to enable MOES to collect, capture and process data to generate management information that could help in planning and evidence-based decision making at all levels. It is possible that MOES does not have up-to-date data for institutions, teachers, pupils, infrastructures, finances etc. If the data is available, they are not using for the right purpose. The time is now. We are not in a normal situation. There is a saying that “desperate times call for desperate measures”. To ensure social distancing, overcrowding in schools can be avoided by ensuring children are redistributed in different schools ensuring each school has enrollment that does not exceed her capacity. The education officers and school inspectors assisted by the parish chiefs and the local council leaders can be used to collect any other additional information in relation to schools in their areas of jurisdiction.
Lastly, to avoid overcrowding and ensuring schools are given time to transit to the proposed measures, government can push reporting dates to July or September. The reporting dates of school children can be staggered with candidate classes probably reporting first. Policymakers will have to clearly deliver the bad news of delay in re-opening of schools as early as possible so parents can plan how to manage daily routines. Above all, teachers, parents and school owners will prepare how to survive and possibly thrive in these tough times. This will be in the assumption that the MOES is designing a practical and sustainable framework to deal with congestion and hygiene in schools for post-COVID-19 sustainable school transformation.
The writer is the Dean Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences and Chairperson Board of Governors Nganwa High School.