Long school closings in Uganda cause despair for children

Mathias Okwako, dressed in school uniform, began his daily search for gold. This commodity may be closer than his other precious asset, an education.

Long school closings in Uganda cause despair for children

The school is located just across the street from the swamp, where he and many other children work as informal miners. Some classrooms are populated by weeds. A nearby school rents out rooms to tenants.

According to U.N. cultural agency figures, Uganda's schools were closed for more than 77 days because of the coronavirus epidemic. This is the longest disruption anywhere in the globe.

And, unlike other parts of the world, where lessons can be moved online, the majority of East African public schools, which serves the vast majority, could not offer virtual schooling.

Some students married to fill the void. Many are now dealing with unwanted pregnancies. Okwako (17 years old) found work.

According to Moses Mangeni (an official at the local government in Busia where Okwako resides), "outcasts" have been created by the pandemic.

The efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 are disrupting the lives of children around the world. They have had to squeeze their parents, make their lives more difficult, and sometimes remove their safety nets. It has also caused chaos in their education, perhaps the most important thing.

According to Save the Children, the result is the "biggest international education emergency of our times." Save the Children last month identified 48 countries (including Uganda) that are in extreme or high danger of school system collapse. The majority of them are located in sub-Saharan Africa. This region has long been plagued by high dropout rates as well as a shortage qualified teachers.

Other parts of the globe that experienced prolonged closures had also faced difficulties teaching students. Mexico, which has poor internet connectivity, chose to broadcast educational programming via television. The pandemic in Mexico left millions of children homeless and caused an increase in child homicides and teen pregnancies as well as domestic violence.

According to the World Bank, remote learning in Iraq was also "limited and unqual."

Some countries with higher incomes did better. Kuwait's public schools were not equipped to access the internet when the virus struck. All schooling was stopped in Kuwait for seven months in 2020. The oil-rich Gulf Arab sheikhdom invested $212 million in an e-learning platform and all schools went online. The rollout was deemed a success.

However, Uganda is not a country that has achieved success.

In March 2020, the country's first school closure occurred. This was shortly after the first confirmed coronavirus case on the African continent. Although some classes were reopened to students in February 2019, a total lockdown was again imposed in June due to the country's first major surge. It is the only African country where schools are still closed, even though President Yoweri Mugabe announced last week that they would reopen January.

This is because virus cases have decreased in recent months. According to Johns Hopkins University, the country now has an average of 70 new infection per day and only a few deaths. Uganda has vaccinated approximately 700,000.

Janet Museveni is the country's first lady and education minister. She has denied criticisms that the government doesn't do enough to educate children. She asked, "Why our children cannot feel safe at home?" What happened to the family?

Some Ugandans believe that government has not found a way to allow children to continue learning even when they are locked down. The national program that would have broadcast lessons via radio stations free of charge didn't happen, and many rural children don't have any learning materials.

Schools are often a place of refuge for vulnerable children, as they may provide food and routine vaccinations for their children or access to other services that are not readily available at home.

In Uganda's poorest families, however, children are often left alone without private tutoring or Zoom lessons.

Even before the pandemic, it was not uncommon to see children selling goods on the streets of Busia. The situation has only gotten worse.

Many children spoke out to The Associated Press, expressing hopelessness during the prolonged lockdown.

Okwako claimed he was searching for gold in his school uniform because he didn't have anything else. Okwako sought work out boredom, but regrets that he doesn't have the energy to study alone after tiring days.

He said, "No time (for reading books)." You can't open a book if you don't want to. Then you will fall asleep and wake up tomorrow.

Under the scorching heat, students work alongside their teachers at the informal gold mine. Witnesses claim that the frustrations and risks of precarious work led to fights and that some children broke limbs digging.

A typical day's earnings can be just over $2. This is enough to purchase a pair of shoes for a child. Okwako is proud to have bought two pigs with his earnings. Others said that they use the money to help their families by buying soap and salt regularly.

Annet Aita (16 years old) said that she came to earn money. Her job is to clean the soil containing gold dust using toxic mercury.

However, work can also provide a refuge from the other dangers that may be threatening those who are not at school. Aita stated that she felt more fortunate than her friends who had pregnancies at their homes.

Francis Adungosi, Teacher, stated that he is now working at the mine "from Tuesday to Monday" and advised that he would need to take a "refresher" course before returning to school.

His students are also traumatized. They are facing many challenges. Some are already pregnant. Some are already married. It will be a difficult task to manage all of those children.

Those who return to the past will be able to do that. Many people say they won't.

Some children are now saying, "We don't remember what we read," so why should they go back? Gilbert Mugalanzi of Somero Uganda said. The group conducted a survey in November to determine how the pandemic was affecting schools in Busia.

Emmy Odillo, Okwako's Mawero Primary school teacher, said that he expects only a fraction of the 400 students from next year.

Other people have similar low expectations.

Bosco Masaba is the director of studies at Busia Central Secondary School. He said that he often sees students selling eggs or tomatoes on the streets. According to him, some Kenyan girls have become domestic workers at the Kenyan border.

Masaba stated, "Some have lost all hope,"