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By Mulengera Reporters

 Since President Museveni’s last COVID19 address, education sector stakeholders have been holding meetings to work out the re-opening plan aimed at giving effect to Gen Museveni’s wish to have candidate class and finalist tertiary students return to school to ensure they don’t lose their academic year to the Coronavirus pandemic.

Gen Museveni had set Thursday 4th June as the possible day when this schools’ reopening can materialize but the dialogue between the education sector leadership and the national COVID19 taskforce hasn’t yielded much as there are many sticking points which some fear will require the whole year to be sustainably resolved. Some of the candidate class students are from other countries being international students and others are resident in the border districts on which Gen Museveni slapped movement restrictions with no one being permitted to move in or out of there until further guidance.

To get the foreign students here, you have to first subject them to COVID19 testing and it’s a matter that involves both security and health Ministries. Led by Janet Museveni, the education Ministry doesn’t control testing of COVID. Neither do they control cross border movements that are inevitable for international candidates’ class students to get back to Uganda. It’s a complication Gen Museveni must have overlooked as he gave the Ministry two weeks to give him the reopening action plan.

After their own Tuesday meeting, the education sector officials (whose institutions are home to more than 15m students) had another meeting on Wednesday with colleagues from the Rugunda-led national taskforce. Still not much progress was made as even members with medical background gave contradicting views, fermenting more confusion at the meeting. The education sector delegation handed in their document containing several proposals and feedback was promised from the Premier Ruhakana Rugunda-led national task force.

When children are back to school, even if they are candidate classes, they are entitled to visitations by their parents and guardians or even family doctors (for those who could be terminally ill). It’s part of learning and preparation for UNEB exams. Yet the dilemma is; how do you ensure no infections result during those interactive visitation moments? How do you minimize congestion and human contact during such visitations? Some are suggesting that such mandatory visitations be scheduled to last a full week to diminish high mass concentrations of parents. What happens if a parent or guardian coming to visit is a truck driver or his primary contact and he is all the child has? Very intriguing questions and at these meetings, as you can imagine, people come up with all sorts of ideas; some of them reflecting the nervousness the COVID pandemic has sparked everywhere.

The other dilemma is that, even when you permitted only candidates back, some of the schools have such large students numbers there is no way you can’t totally eliminate high mass concentrations of humans. How do they tell who any of those students was previously exposed to in the last 14 days preceding his/her return to school? In this country, there are schools where candidate classes alone boast of several hundreds of learners or even thousands. Even when they have large infrastructure, it’s still not very easy to achieve the 4-6 meter spacing which is being prescribed as ideal.

You also have the issue of transportation. Many parents don’t own private cars and it’s quite expensive for them to affordably deliver their children back to the schools without public transport being fully reopened. In some cases, you have a child residing in Zana or even Lubowa and is a candidate of P7 at Nakasero Primary School or even Buganda Road. Even if you reopened tomorrow, how does that child access school and back home every day without public transport being fully reopened? There are actually many such students implying you require full resumption of public transport for them to access school once again because their parents are too poor to afford any other means.

Indeed, COVID19 has awakened up the Museveni government to many gaps that had always been ignored despite persistent noise bodies like UNATU or even Makerere’s Muasa had been making about the same. One such reality is that this country doesn’t adequately have accommodation for its teachers meaning in most schools, especially public ones, teachers trek even longer distances than the learners they teach. This means those teachers (who are no doubt poor people) too require public transport to daily come to school and back home. It’s the only means they can afford given the meager salaries they earn from their job.

Besides transport-related constraints, as they move about, teachers escalate exposure chances to themselves and the students (even if they are in boarding section). A teacher who has been exposed between home and school will naturally expose people at school or even in the community back home. And community infections is a reality too painful for even Gen Museveni to ponder. Schools have no accommodation for them and it’s not something that can be urgently addressed even if the state were to provide some emergency financing to that effect. You need not only the money but time to build teachers’ houses and have them ready. It’s complications like these that have pushed some leaders at these high levels meetings to consider it a good option to abandon everything about schools’ resumption up to next year officially declaring 2020, a dead year (as one of the most followed CBS radio presenters has been arguing each time he comes on air).

The other painful reality is that parents themselves have become financially too cracked to immediately afford any money towards return and school retention of their children. Majority, even in Kampala and Wakiso where parents are wealthier compared to counterparts in other districts, have become so vulnerable, the state has had to feed them as they stay at home incompliance with Gen Museveni’s lockdown restrictions. People (and these are the very lucky few) have eaten up (in the last two months) not only their hard-earned savings but capital too!

Some who 100% thrived on rental fees from their small houses in the suburbs are totally stuck and are struggling to just feed their families. Look at it this way. You have tenants from whom you haven’t collected rent (since March because Gen M7 decreed so). You can’t chase them. You can’t get new ones moving in yet for you must continue going to the grocery shop to spend money to, in return, get something for your family to feed on. It’s very difficult for many citizens in Kampala and Wakiso and even worse in poorer townships.

This is why some are suggesting that government steps in and initially funds all schools (in case the COVID pandemic comes to an end) and gradually recovers the cash from them as the poverty-stricken parents financially recover (which naturally will be gradually taking between 1-3 years). This is something even rabid supporters of Gen Museveni, like Lyantonde MP James Kakooza, vehemently support (and the truth is things well worsen first before getting better).

Back to the education Ministry meetings, there are credible fears that even after the transport means is resolved, there is a high likelihood of teachers and students increasing the risk of the virus infection as they trek between home and school where they naturally will have to interact with many 3rd party persons whose COVID19 status can’t be known. How do you monitor and accurately capture information pertaining to thousands of day scholars or even their teachers? It’s a dilemma all the excellent brains at the ongoing meetings haven’t been able to find plausible responses to.

Majority experts especially from the public health perspective are of the view that Gen Museveni eats a humble pie and forget about schools’ reopening up to next year. The only problem is that such experts are timid and not courageous enough to vigorously push their views at such meetings fearing to be misunderstood by Ministers and other politicians who continue to be perceived as Gen Museveni’s eyes and ears at such meetings. Ideally, the best they can do is to lay all scientific facts on table and leave it upon Gen Museveni and his fellow politicians to have the last word regarding when and how to ease up everything and reopen not just the schooling system but the entire country. As all these questions are being pondered the possibility of subsequent waves of Coronavirus striking and hitting hard remains one that we must repeatedly ponder.

Gratefully, the emerging consensus among members of the non-state education institutions (who are supposed to be in a hurry to reopen because of bank loans and unpaid service providers etc) is that there is no need to hurry. This country can continue the caution Gen Museveni has eloquently been preaching and keep our schools and other academic institutions closed up to next year. All we can say for now, as Gen Museveni awaits for the outcome of the ongoing meetings between education and health experts, is that may the best option win for the good of our children, their parents and country.

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