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Schools, govt at war over SOPs

Education minister Janet Museveni

Education minister Janet Museveni

The immediate reaction to the reopening of schools on October 15 has ranged from strong support for the decision to aggressive calls from school administrators for the revision of the ‘stringent and unrealistic’ standard operating procedures.

Several school administrators surveyed were ‘completely unhappy’ with the standard operating procedures announced by the ministry of Education and Sports. In multiple interviews, some school administrators rejected the government- imposed stark choice – operating day or boarding school, but not both.

Interviewed for comments last week, school managers insisted there is no need to restrict their operations to either day or boarding school. They say the one-size-fits-all approach that attempts to micro-manage every school scenario is likely to get more learners out of school due to lack of transport or boarding fees.

According to the new standard operating procedures (SOPs), all schools in urban centers shall have special buses or vans on designated routes to transport learners who cannot walk or be privately driven to school. And such transport has been restricted within a radius of five kilometers from the school. The special buses must observe general SOPs for public transport.

Under the new arrangement, school administrators have been asked to register all learners and their modes of transport to and from school.

“Learners who walk to school or are transported by private means to schools may continue to do so; however, they may not use public transport on any occasion, even if they cannot walk or be privately transported to and from school by their parents or guardians,” reads the guidelines.

The education ministry has further advised parents under this “emergency public health situation” to identify schools nearest to their homes to enroll their children in the meantime to avoid risks, unnecessary costs and inconveniences of long distances to schools. 

Uganda National Teachers’ Union (Unatu) secretary general Filbert Baguma described the ban on public transport as a “mere assumption” by the education ministry that will not be followed by schools.

Baguma said school head teachers have no capacity to control movement of day learners.

“It is true that we cannot close schools forever but when we reopen, we should be realistic. Not every parent has a vehicle or can afford private means to transport learners in urban centers where public transport is the only option,” Baguma said.

“Government wants parents to join nearby schools in the meantime; what if the parents are not comfortable with the education standards of the school? Will you force them to enroll their children?”

He said such a decision needs to be revised since parents are already hit hard by the pandemic. Baguma argued that government ought to have looked for a supplementary budget to support schools to operate efficiently.

DAY OR BOARDING

Currently, schools are utilizing available resources to make arrangements to welcome candidates who are likely not to remit fees on time. At Old Kampala SS, the head teacher, James Mulomi, told The Observer that management has agreed to temporarily close off the boarding section for girls located inside the school premises.

Mulomi said this has been a tough decision, which will affect learners from distant areas such as Gulu, Tororo, Busia, and Mukono whose parents will either have to take them to other schools or nearby hostels.

“You know there’s something that is up for discussion and an order from above. The boarding wing will be closed and we shall advise parents to find hotels near the school. However, the ministry has not made it clear whether they will allow private hostels to operate because that will be out of our control,” Mulomi said. 

Students have their temperatures checked in Botswana when schools reopened 

Before the first term closed, Old Kampala SS had 265 and 245 senior four and six candidates, respectively. Mulomi said he expects the number to increase because there are candidates who failed last year’s Uneb exams and often dodge term one fees but come and register in second term.  At Baptist High School in Kitebi, the head teacher, Grace Namakula, said the school is likely to opt for only boarding students despite registering as day and boarding.

“This is a tricky situation and we don’t know how our parents are going to fit in the new arrangement. Truth be told, there are some children who can’t be in boarding or day sections whatsoever; that’s why we operate both,” Namakula said. She added that besides paying fees, some parents may not be in position to afford the basic requirements for the boarding section on short notice.

In the guidelines, schools are supposed to observe social distancing of at least two meters in the classrooms. Those with large numbers of candidates are advised to teach in shifts.

SOCIAL DISTANCING DILEMMA

At the government-owned Kololo High School, there are at least 300 senior four and 120 senior six candidates. Originally, the senior four candidates were studying in five streams but with the two meters social distance requirement, that translates into 12 more streams, according to the director of studies, Daniel Katunda.

“We can operate with the numbers but this means calling on the entire teaching staff in order to operate better. One teacher cannot handle more than a stream yet all learners must be occupied at the same time,” Katunda said. 

He is, however, concerned that teachers may have trouble getting back to their homes. “If you get vans to transport teachers, they stay in different directions like Matugga, Mukono, Mpigi, Kakiri and others scattered in Kampala. This is a costly venture but we shall see how to manoeuver,” Katunda added.

For the full reopening under the two meters sitting arrangement, he said, they can’t handle the numbers if the candidates alone are taking up the entire school. Namakula said at her school, with 140 and 120 senior four and six candidates, they have sufficient space for social distancing but lack adequate funds to facilitate the teaching staff.

“The splitting of classes in many small streams means that compulsory subjects have to be taught at ago. These many teachers will need salaries yet we have to borrow to put in place the SOPs. We have to spend before earning,” she said.

A researcher at the National Educational Institutions Association-Uganda (NPEIAU) Hasadu Kirabira, noted that while they have been actively engaged in formulation of the guidelines, some SOPs generated by the ministry’s top management need urgent review.

“We had pushed for reopening of candidates and semi-candidates to help benchmark from the experience of the small group. We don’t regret not reopening for semi-candidates but the ministry hasn’t given us reasons for not allowing semi-candidates to date,” Kirabira said.

For now, he said schools can handle SOPs such as hand washing, temperature monitors, and wearing masks. He said, however, schools will have trouble to adjust to operating as strictly day or boarding. The banning of public transport compounds the situation for learners and teachers.

Established in 1994, NPEIA has a membership of 18,000 education institutions; 7,211 are kindergartens/nursery schools, 8,430 primary schools and 2,196 secondary schools, 161 tertiary institutions, and 23 international schools.  There are 350,000 teachers and 250,000 support staff.

nangonzi@observer.ug

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