Dropouts and Menial Jobs: The Effects of Keeping Uganda’s Schools Closed

As much of the world moves closer to fully opening schools, at least one nation has stuck to keeping them fully or partly closed: Uganda.

Eighteen months into the pandemic, officials in the country have kept more than 10 million primary and secondary school students at home, with no plans to reopen their classrooms soon. And while Uganda’s leaders say that the policy is the safest option, on the ground, the effects of the closures are stark.

The “government has not left schools closed to punish you, but rather, to protect you from harm,” the education minister, Janet Museveni, who is also the country’s first lady, said on Twitter in September. She said that the government did not want to risk having parents become infected by students, who “would become orphans — just like H.I.V./AIDS did to many of our families.”

President Yoweri Museveni said in a televised address last month that parents should expect schools to reopen in January, along with other small businesses like bars, hair salons and recreational centers.

In the meantime, however, young women, abandoning hopes of going to school, are getting married and starting families instead. School buildings are being converted into businesses or health clinics. Teachers are quitting, and disillusioned students are taking menial jobs like selling fruit or mining for gold.

“The government has failed to strike a balance between the lives they are saving and the lives they are losing,” said Filbert Baguma, general secretary of the Uganda National Teachers’ Union.

He noted that public spaces like markets and churches had been allowed to reopen, thus exposing the same students to the coronavirus. “Students are not any better off in terms of protection than when they were in their learning institutions,” he said.

Even Uganda’s government has concluded that the sweeping closures have had a devastating effect.

A report released in August by the National Planning Authority, a government agency, found that “30 percent of the learners are likely not to return to school forever” and that 3,507 primary and 832 secondary schools in the country were likely to close.

In June, the Delta variant contributed to a surge in cases and overwhelmed hospitals, pushing the authorities to suspend gatherings and impose a 42-day lockdown. But the country now has a relatively low infection rate, recording just 67 deaths in October, and is now averaging 372 new cases per day, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

The Education Ministry has tried to compensate by distributing home learning materials and broadcasting radio programs to help children learn remotely.

But Mary Goretti Nakabugo, the executive director of Uwezo, an education organization, said that only 20 percent of families contacted in a recent poll had received the materials. Even those families who had received them rarely made use of them, she said.

Bwengye Elia, a mathematics and physics teacher in the Wakiso district of central Uganda, said that few students could afford to meet school costs on their own.

“Data is expensive, which further limits the percentage of students who can afford to continue learning online,” he said. “Barely any students are learning at all.”

Many students have dropped out to seek work instead.

Mukasa Nicholas, 18, said that he had waited six months for classes to start before moving to Kampala, the capital, to find a job. He now sells medical masks on the street, bringing in about $2 a day.

“If my parents ask me to return to school,” he said, “I will reject them.”

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