An estimated 50,000 schools closed countrywide due to the Coronavirus disease pandemic in March begin to reopen on October 15 after a harsh seven-month-long lockdown.
The reopening is phased with strict standard operating procedures (SOPs), starting with candidate classes and final-year students in higher institutions of learning. But the SOPs listed in the national education institutions calendar released last week have stirred a mixed bag of reactions from stakeholders.
In an interview with Yudaya Nangonzi last Thursday, the permanent secretary, ministry of Education, ALEX KAKOOZA explained the inner workings that informed the timing of the reopening and the string of SOPs put in place.
Why did the ministry of Education consider reopening education institutions to finalists despite a surge in Covid-19 infections?
As a ministry, we realised that Covid-19 is not going away tomorrow and has become a new normal. We have to learn to live with Covid-19. When we closed education institutions, we have been working behind the scenes to see how insitutions can operate again.
This, we were doing, in addition to delivery of continuity of learning. We have also been working on guidelines, a strategy to be followed when we open, and these have been done in consultation with scientists at the ministry of Health to ensure that when we reopen, we do so without compromising the health of the learners. So, this is why we decided to reopen.
Which term begins on October 15, since the first term had an extra month to go when schools were closed? University students did courseworks only. Students didn’t sit their end-of-semester examinations.
We are reopening for term two. The calendar has been adjusted to ensure that whatever was not covered in term one is covered in terms two and three. We have provided enough time for learners to cover all the work they ought to have covered within the entire academic year.
Remember, we have removed a number of activities such as extra-curricular activities. So, the education calendar is ending in April 2021. For universities, by the time we closed, they were almost completing their second semester and going into final examinations. So, the universities shall be expected to pick up from where they stopped and complete the final semester of the academic year.
Are schools charging term two fees or the balance of term one will be extended to term two?
True, term one was not completed but we have encouraged school management committees to discuss this issue and come up with a workable solution because whereas term one was not completed, during closure, schools continued to pay teachers and incur other overhead expenses.
You will note from the calendar issued, term two and term three are slightly longer than they would have been. This alone can compensate both for the time and money that was lost in term one.
Is government going to subject every student and staff to a Covid test before reopening? If yes, who will pay for the test?
The most ideal situation would be to test every learner, staff, and anyone who will be interacting with our learners. However, we know that world over, it has not been possible to test everyone due to the inadequacy of testing kits and the attendant cost involved.
In our discussions, we are looking at the possibility of testing teachers in areas that are most affected [with Covid-19] like Kampala. We thought that if the ministry of Health can offer free testing to all our [private and government] teaching and non-teaching staff in Kampala, that will be a good start because as you know, Kampala is a hotspot. However, the ministry of Education will continue to work with the ministry of Health to intervene appropriately in any other part of the country whenever need arises.
As parents report with school fees and requirements like brooms and toiletries, how are schools going to address overcrowding on their premises?
The guidelines we have sent out to schools must be interpreted in context. First, when we ban visiting days, career days, and visitors in schools, that is a general rule.
For instance, if a child falls sick, he or she must be picked by their parent but under clear supervision of a member of the school Covid-19 taskforce who will ensure that the parent does so while observing the SOPs such as wearing a face mask, hand washing, sanitizing, and minimize interactions with other people at the school premises. On the other hand, if a parent must pay school fees at school and is allowed to walk straight to the bursar’s office, that action is not comparable in any way to having a crowd of parents at school on a visitation day.
In addition to the guidelines and SOPs issued, schools are known to be more disciplined and organised than a number of organisations. So, they will adopt our guidelines and do much better at ensuring the safety of learners; that is why we feel our children may even be safer in schools than in some places where they stay.
As you may have heard, in Kampala, when parents go to work, the children are in arcades, shopping malls and on public transport. We have requested each school to establish a Covid-19 taskforce to customize the guidelines to operate better.
The guidelines indicate that schools shall operate as day or boarding, but not both. The SOPs also discourage day students from using public transport. They have to use special buses to and from school.
The provision for the means of transport is mainly for schools that operate as day. We are discouraging public transport because the risk is greater and can preferably only be used when it is inevitable.
So, in our view, we thought discouraging public transport was one way of minimizing infections in our institutions. Secondly, if children are in schools and we optimized the available space, we can achieve enough social distancing.
For instance, if a school had operated as day and boarding and now opted for only boarding, that school will have enough space for its learners since we only have finalists. If learners settled in a boarding school for 14 days with minimal external contact and we don’t have any case, it will be much easier to maintain their safety as opposed to having those who come in and out daily.
Will morning and evening preps continue with boarding students?
Preps are not different from normal classes. The biggest issue now is about re-organisation of study space. If students were conducting preps in a library; how do you create more space to conform to the SOPs? In the new normal, some learners can utilise the dining area and classrooms but under strict supervision while still observing the Covid SOPs.
In schools with inadequate facilities, how will science practicals be handled if learners have to share laboratory equipment?
First of all, the guidelines provide for sanitizing at all possible time. Actually, we have got a team of scientists led by Dr Monica Musenero [the presidential advisor on epidemics] to train head teachers and other core staff in how to implement the SOPs in schools.
We have also advised schools with inadequate space/facilities and a big number of candidates to operate in shifts just like hotels and restaurants are doing.
So, where laboratories have to accommodate big number of learners, the schools will have to do so in shifts. For schools with big numbers, the morning shift shall end at 12:30pm and afternoon shift starts at 2pm to allow for disinfection of the affected surfaces before the next shift. Alternatively, the schools can have different streams attending on alternate days to ensure that learners observe a social distance of at least two meters. We trust that our head teachers will abide by the stipulated SOPs in their schools.
How is government planning to distribute the two face masks to each learner?
We have agreed that the ministry of Health will deliver all the masks to schools. Each learner will get two masks in all institutions of learning.
We are working with the National Council for Higher Education, health examination bodies and Uganda National Examinations Board to establish registered institutions with candidates or finalists to deliver their masks.
What happens to an institution found with a Covid-19 case?
I guess you want me to say whether such an institution shall be closed or quarantine all close contacts. This is everyone’s concern; however, we have linked these institutions to their district Covid-19 taskforces and the ministry of Health so that whenever a case arises, the district taskforce with assistance from the ministry of Health will assess the situation and take appropriate measures.
For institutions that were gazetted as quarantine centers, has the ministry prepared for their reopening?
We have written to the ministry of Health to vacate quarantine centers from these schools and they have also agreed to thoroughly disinfect the schools at their cost.
We shall also come in to give psycho-socio support to learners and parents, especially assuring them that these premises are now safe for learners. This is critical because the learners will think Covid patients or those suspected to be infected may have left the school contaminated.
What’s the fate of continuing learners? Will, for instance, a child in baby class repeat next year?
I want to reiterate that we are not planning to have a dead year. Secondly, if a child was in baby class in 2020, what is it that this child is going to study in the same class next year that he or she cannot cover if promoted to middle class? Apparently, those in Top class are not supposed to have pre-entry examinations to primary one.
According to the education system, every learner is supposed to join primary one as the starting class for primary education. So, we shall not have a dead year and we are preparing materials for all classes to cover the entire syllabus. We shall be doing an assessment to check how best learners have utilised these materials and then agree on how they move to the next level.
If we reopen for continuing learners, now that all notes are ready and children have been studying at home, it will be polishing them up with emphasis on the practical aspects. So, any work that will not be covered under the proposed arrangements shall be provided for at their next level [class].
Talk about the president’s suggestion that government will take over community schools in areas where private schools have closed due to the ravages of the lockdown.
Government is currently finalizing construction of 117 secondary schools in various parts of the country in sub-counties without a secondary school under the Uganda Intergovernmental Fiscal Transfer Program (UgIFT). This financial year, under the same project, more 115 secondary schools are going to be constructed. Under the Uganda Secondary Education Expansion Project (USEEP) which is starting this financial year, we shall construct 116 schools.
These two projects, together with other efforts being made by the ministry, will greatly reduce the number of sub-counties without a government secondary school. Currently, we cannot determine the private schools that are set to close until after the candidates have reported back to school on October 15. We shall then make an assessment in line with a government policy of setting up a secondary school per sub-country.
Is the ministry aware that some teachers are already conducting lessons for a sizeable number of learners in their homes?
We are officially not aware of this arrangement. We have always said that education is a shared responsibility and so is the health of our children and families.
When the president announced a lockdown, it was basically to ensure there is social distancing and a safe environment for our children. Therefore, if any teacher is gathering learners in a home, they are endangering themselves, learners, and their families.
Government comes up with policies but implementation is another daunting task. How are you prepared to oversee these guidelines?
We came up with an implementation strategy of reopening schools and we are going to follow it to the letter. We are going to train, sensitise and then inspect all institutions. Currently, we are issuing certificates to health training institutions that were recently inspected and found compliant with the guidelines for reopening. We shall do our best to implement what we have put on paper.