As the COVID-19 pandemic ravages the world, it is essential to attend to the educational needs of learners during and after the crisis. In Uganda, the restrictions imposed by the country have negatively impacted on education at all levels, and will continue to do so for at least several months, as learners and teachers are unable to physically meet in the schools.
Uganda is currently using non-pharmaceutical interventions like; social distancing, lockdowns, wearing face masks and curfew among others. As a country, we seem to be on a successful path to combat the COVID-19 contagion. However, there is laxity among the population to practice social distancing and wear masks. This is worrying, because the current and expected global infections and deaths at present and in the coming months are ominous. Researchers at Imperial College in London, estimate the global impact in the year 2020 to range between 20 million deaths, with effective non-pharmaceutical interventions in place, and 40 million deaths, without such interventions.
The Ministry of education and Sports (MOES) availed a number of interventions to address children’s education continuity. However, the interventions were not easily adaptive, coherent, effective, inclusive and equitable to address different learners’ needs. For example, not all parents and carers are able to access a newspaper, radio, television or a smart phone/computer with a stable internet connection. The pandemic found many unprepared for alternative modalities of giving education to learners outside the 4 walled classrooms. Moreover, the country had not adequately invested in emerging technologies for education, thus, the idea of remote learning has remained something not clear to most education stakeholders. However, the question that remains unanswered is; when shall education institutions reopen? And will our children be safe bearing in mind the situation in our learning environments?
Getting 15 million students back to school will be a relief to parents and government but the threat of future waves of COVID-19 outbreak remains. For example in S. Korea, more than 200 schools were forced to reclose, days after they had reopened due to increase in numbers of COVID-19 cases. Re-opening of schools must be carefully planned and aligned with the recommendations of health officials. The immediate concern lies in preparing the physical learning environment. We may need to consider employment of robust strategies like the use of face masks; frequent hand washing; adjusting school and exam calendar; following an accelerated syllabus; condensing the curricula to focus on key aspects; preparing after school study programmes; review of assessment of learner’s framework and availing adequate funding to education institutions to cater for their needs.
Schools may learn how to cope and run their daily operations with social distancing in mind, but, there are many issues to consider in the context of Ugandan schools; ranging from congestion, transport, school ownership, policies underpinning education, age and levels of learners among others. Special attention must be given to physical learning environments: encouraging new hygiene habits; enabling social distancing in schools; reducing congestion in classes and as the government strengthens remote learning just in case any other wave of the spread comes up.
It’s therefore vital to note that the 15 million learners and the staff working in education institutions must first be tested, then be permanently confined in schools, then be re-tested after some time until a term is completed due to asymptomatic carriers who may not manifest the symptoms. Yet mass testing of over 15 million people is a very expensive venture that may exhaust a whole year budget allocated to the education sector.
Remote learning was the best option to engage students during COVID-19 crisis period when schools and universities were shut down. As such, schools globally have been using technology to reach the remotest of the areas. This however can be an intermittent solution as human interaction is imperative for a holistic education of our children bearing in mind that no technology will ever replace a teacher. Besides the digital divide, the availability and affordability are other challenges with technology. Till the time internet connectivity is considered as important and necessary as electricity, the outreach of technology is doubtful.
Amidst the economic challenges due to COVID-19 lockdown that schools, learners and parents are faced with at present, we need to build resilience and endurance amongst our young people. Preparation and strategizing for such situations must be an ongoing process. I think that it’s a critical issue to give attention to how parents and guardians could be supported to help children’s education at home.
In most countries, mental illness issues have been recorded due to loss of loved ones, child abuse, domestic violence, starvation, downshifting and anxiety. The framework or guidelines in reopening of our schools need to put in consideration the promotive factors for healing from traumas.
Though it is well-known that time spent learning is one of the most reliable predictors of opportunity to learn, the reopening of institutions of learning must be well-thought of. The safety of leaners and staff must remain a priority.
By Tumwesigye Michael
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