After months of delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, school has returned for students around the globe. But many parents in African countries are unable to pay for that privilege. They say their children will have to miss the new term.
Relief over the gradual reopening of schools is matched by concern over the financial strain caused by the pandemic—and over how to protect students in often crowded classrooms from the coronavirus.
Mike Ssekaggo is headmaster of Wampeewo Ntakke Secondary School near Uganda’s capital of Kampala. Parents at his school are scrambling to enroll their children for the first time since March.
School officials worry some children might not return to class because their parents have not been working, Ssekaggo says. Only about half of 430 students reported to school on the day after he began admitting them.
One cash-strapped mother asked to pay her child’s school tuition fees with bags of rice. Ssekaggo requested a sample, and then agreed.
In Uganda, authorities have set standards that schools must meet before they can admit students. Schools must have enough handwashing stations and enough room in classrooms and dorms for social distancing.
Although the pandemic has disrupted education worldwide, the crisis is most severe in Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa already had the highest rates of children out of school anywhere in the world. Up to 80% of students on the continent don’t have access to the internet. That makes distance learning impossible for many.
As in Uganda, Kenya is implementing a phased reopening of schools. Students taking exams to move to upper grade school, high school, and college reported in October. The rest will return in January. But some schools have already reported outbreaks. There is widespread concern that schools reopened too early.
Zimbabwe reports similar challenges. More than 100,000 public teachers there have been striking since schools reopened. The instructors are demanding better pay as well as protective gear.
Authorities in Uganda and Kenya are not testing students for the virus before enrollment. John Nkengasong, head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says, “We naturally expect there will be infections.”
Uganda’s Wampeewo Ntakke Secondary School had 1,800 students before the outbreak. Recently, officials at the gates took the temperatures of arriving students. Each was also required to bring at least two masks. Later, a nurse briefed them about safety.
“I think we are safe,” says student Sylvia Namuyomba, pondering the handwashing stations on the school’s lawns. Meanwhile, a stern-looking teacher wearing a face shield patrols the compound, rebuking students who even briefly remove their masks.
“We are just leaving it in prayer that by January there will be no COVID,” says teacher Vincent Odoi. “Otherwise, we won’t manage.” What a beautiful example of 1 Peter 5:7: “Casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you”!
(Schoolchildren play at the Olympic Primary School in Nairobi, Kenya, as schools partially reopened to allow students to prepare for examinations. AP/Brian Inganga)