Prioritize re-opening of schools to secure children’s well being
An OpEd by Dr. Munir Safieldin, UNICEF Representative in Uganda
There is more to schools than learning! During the first coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown in March 2020, over 15 million learners were sent home. Subsequently, Uganda was ranked among the top 20 countries with the highest number of days of full school closures between March 2020 and February 2021. Data from the UNESCO Global Monitoring of School Closures Caused by COVID-19 Pandemic report (2021) highlights that children in Uganda missed 149 school days during that period. However, behind the missed school days lay a bigger challenge for the country’s school children.
Early into the lockdown, the media was awash with reports of child neglect and abuse - physical, sexual, and psychological. The Situation of, and Impact of COVID 19 on School going Girls and Young Women in Uganda reports that between March 2020 and June 2021, there was a 22.5 per cent increase in pregnancy among girls aged 10-24 seeking first antenatal care from 80,653 to 98,810. The UNICEF-supported child tollfree line, Sauti 116, reported over 600 cases in the month of June 2020 alone! The cases ranged from sexual abuse, physical abuse and even one instance of murder! In addition, approximately 2 out of every 10 children had less than a meal a day as they no longer had access to the meals provided under the school feeding programmes.
In June 2021, millions of learners across primary, secondary and even university were sent back home as schools closed in a partial lockdown resulting from a second wave of COVID-19 in Uganda. We must not wait for similar results in the future.
Behind every school is a safe child, a learning child. When schools close, children are at risk with marginalized ones paying a heavier price. Evidence shows that the children’s numeracy and literacy levels fall with many facing the risk of never attending school again. There are other risks such as child labour, negative mental health, and sexual exploitation with many teenage girls becoming pregnant and being victims of early marriages.
Realizing Uganda’s Vision 2040 will require among other things, investing in children’s future through sustainable education. In the meantime, since schools are closed, government and partners must scale up remote learning opportunities for all children while at the same time working to ensure that all protocols necessary for safe reopening of schools are put in place.
There needs to be continued prioritization of the vaccination of teachers. I must thank the Government of Uganda for having done this when the COVID-19 vaccines first became available in the country and call for a continued commitment to the same, as teachers are part of the essential workers who have been prioritized for the vaccination.
There also is urgent need to equip schools with the resources and the support required to meet the standard operating procedures (SOPs). The timely release of per capita grants for Universal Primary Education (UPE) and Universal Secondary Education (USE) will be critical. Members of Parliament and other political leaders should use their new mandate handed to them during the recently concluded elections to ensure that funding for schools is in place for continued learning.
We recognize that the Ministry of Education & Sports (MoES) has developed an Education Sector COVID-19 response plan for continuity of learning to support learning during the lockdown period. This support has provided learning materials to over 2,900,000 children and through radio lessons and digital learning more children have been supported as well to learn.
It is well noted too that the MoES has issued Guidelines for the Reopening of Education institutions and Implementation of COVID-19 Standard Operating Procedures. These guidelines provide actionable guidance for safe reopening and running of education institutions through effective implementation of the SOPs.
Development partners played a key role in supporting the government in the safe re-opening of schools then and there is even more need than ever for their support to bridge the funding gap by availing resources geared towards re-opening of schools. This can be done by supporting schools with personal protective equipment, putting in place the necessary infrastructure and learning materials that enable the implementation of Standard Operating Procedures for education institutions, and retooling teachers with the skills necessary to build back better.
Religious and cultural leaders play a critical role in shaping the narratives necessary to influence the re-opening of schools. I appeal to them to use their influence to ensure that schools are prioritized for re-opening but also to ensure that parents play their role of supporting their children to return to school. Uganda has a high rate of teenage pregnancy and early marriages. According to the Uganda National Household Survey (2016), 34 per cent of women in Uganda are married before the age of 18 and 7.3 per cent before the age of 15. The rate of teenage pregnancy among adolescent girls aged 15–19 years is 25 per cent. Religious and cultural leaders should, therefore, use their platforms to appeal to parents and guardians to do whatever it takes to keep children in school.
Evidence globally has shown the benefits of an educated citizenry. Epidemics like COVID-19 have further cemented the need to prioritize education. The children in school today are the future epidemiologists, nurses and doctors, and teachers among other professions. If we can have 15 million children back in school, Uganda will be able to realize its full potential in a few years to come.
However, even as we wait for the re-opening of schools, there is need to cater for the wellbeing of children. Since the children are out of school, parents must provide a safe environment for their growth and development. Physical and verbal abuse must be avoided. Children must be showered with love and encouragement. Parents and guardians can set aside time to play with their children and listen to their dreams and fears so that they can guide them. School closures come with mental health challenges and without guidance, children could have irreversible effects.
There is need for intentional and increased partnership to work towards making our schools safe for our children now and in the future.
In the face of a changing and challenging world, there is need to ensure continued education, in a safe environment, for every child.
Wear your mask, stay at home, wash your hands with soap and sanitize regularly, so that every child can safely go back to school.
UNICEF promotes the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere.
For more information about UNICEF and its work for children, visit www.unicef.org/uganda