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Beyond COVID: Why Ugandan Kids Can’t Go Back To School

Severe weather and a lack of upkeep during pandemic shutdowns wreaked havoc on school facilities. Officials and parents are scrambling to rebuild.

Photo of schoolchildren entering a mud-walled classroom at Kyeihara Integrated Primary School in Sheema, Uganda.

A mud-walled classroom in Sheema, Uganda

Apophia Agiresaasi*

SHEEMA, UGANDA — After nearly two years of repeated shutdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic, Benon Atwijuka was excited to return to his job as headmaster of Kyeihara Integrated Primary School in southwestern Uganda. But when he arrived, he realized that he had to do more than help his students catch up on the learning they had lost.

“During the long absence, animals roamed and grazed in the school compound and damaged buildings,” he says.

Parts of the buildings, which are made of mud, also eroded due to rain along with people playing football at the school’s pitch and repeatedly kicking balls against the walls, Atwijuka says. Some classrooms were so badly damaged that they were deemed unsafe. A number of teachers now hold classes in four white canvas tents donated by the United Nations Children’s Fund, known as UNICEF.

Schools in decay

Teachers and parents across Uganda are scrambling to reconstruct schools that were severely damaged by animals, humans and the elements when left unattended during long shutdowns to control the spread of the coronavirus. Schools closed in March 2020 and reopened partially in December 2020 but were closed again in June 2021 when cases began to rise. In some instances, entire schools have fallen apart, prompting the government to advise parents to transfer their children to nearby schools, says Dr. Dennis Mugimba, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Education and Sports.The ministry has identified 51 schools across the country, including Kyeihara, that need immediate emergency repair or reconstruction, Mugimba says. “The government has already sent money to those schools for minor repairs.”

Each primary and secondary school received 4 million Ugandan shillings ($1,067) and 6 million shillings ($1,600), respectively, Mugimba says. Every school in the country has also received 1.5 million shillings ($400) to help with the implementation of COVID-19 standard operating procedures. The procurement process for construction of schools has already begun, Mugimba adds, and the process has been decentralized. Local governments that are more proactive have already received the money that the ministry allocated.

Filbert B. Baguma, the general secretary of the Uganda National Teachers’ Union, says that although the full extent of the damage is unknown, the union is in the process of assessing it and compiling a comprehensive list for the ministry. “We are trying to accurately capture the magnitude of the damage of the affected schools so that we can use the figures to advocate for them,” he says.

Some of the most damaged schools are those like Kyeihara that have mud walls. As rainwater repeatedly strikes the walls during storms, it soaks and softens the mud, making it disintegrate and erode away. Keeping the walls intact requires routine replacement of the mud when the rainy season ends. Because that maintenance wasn’t done during the coronavirus shutdowns, some of the walls collapsed, exposing the rafters that are supposed to bind the mud together.

Lower enrollment in schools

The situation has led to low enrollment in some schools. Rauben Kabachenga, the deputy headteacher at Karugorora Primary School in Sheema, says when parents saw how dilapidated school buildings were after the pandemic shutdowns, they heeded the government’s call and transferred their children elsewhere. Karugorora now has only 99 students, down from 153 before the pandemic. “We don’t have any [seventh grade] pupils.”

We are now trying to mobilize parents, telling them that it’s our responsibility to reconstruct the school.

Miria Tumuramye, a parent of three children at Karugorora, says that even though school buildings are in poor condition, she left her children there because she likes the quality of education, and the school is closer to home.

“I kept my children here because this school has some of the best teachers,” she says.

Julius Ngabirano, the chairman of the management committee at Kyeihara Integrated Primary, who also has two children in the school, says that while some parents there have withdrawn their children, others have come together to explore ways they can reconstruct the school because they don’t expect the government to be swift. Even before the pandemic, the school’s structures were not in good condition, he says, an indication that the government may take a while to meet its obligation of building schools.

“We are now trying to mobilize parents, telling them that it’s our responsibility to reconstruct the school,” Ngabirano says.

Students of Kyeihara Integrated Primary School attend class in a makeshift tent in Sheema. Two years of closures to control the coronavirus pandemic left unattended school buildings severely damaged.

Students attend class in a makeshift tent in Sheema.

Apophia Agiresaasi/GPJ

Help from organizations

Atwijuka, the headmaster, has also reached out to nongovernmental organizations for help. He says one of them, Building Tomorrow, a nonprofit organization that advocates for community-based school construction, has promised to help Kyeihara build a seven-classroom block, a nursery school and seven toilet stands.

Joseph Bagambaki, the country director for Building Tomorrow, says the organization has worked with communities to construct 84 schools across the country. Building Tomorrow contributes construction materials and pays for labor, he says, but the schools belong to the community.

“The community must agree before we can start building a school,” Bagambaki says. “They donate the land, provide skilled labor and feed the people working on the site.”

The district approves the project, provides the schools with textbooks, desks and staff and manages the schools, he says.

Parents' mobilization

Other parents aren’t waiting for the government to rebuild their schools. When parents at Karugorora Primary returned from the first shutdown in December 2020 to find buildings falling apart, they began raising money to reconstruct more permanent structures, says Jennifer Kebeyi, the chairperson of the school’s management committee, who also has a 7-year-old at the school.

We rallied parents and community members to raise 80 million shillings [$21,290] and began construction of a three-classroom block,” Kebeyi says.

The tents at Kyeihara Integrated Primary, which offer a temporary solution, still don’t duplicate an indoor classroom. Inside one, a teacher stands next to a blackboard near the entrance as children huddle together on benches. He tries his best to keep the students attentive, but every sound from outside cuts through the tent’s thin canvas walls, clearly distracting the students. Occasionally, children playing outside shake the ropes that anchor the tent. Another child outside attempts to zip up the flaps of one of the windows. The screeching sound of the zipper distracts the classroom again. But Atwijuka, the headmaster, says he appreciates that children no longer have to study out in the open or under the dangerous conditions of the damaged classrooms.

“We are so grateful for the donations of these tents,” he says, “as we await construction of other classrooms.”

*Apophia Agiresaasi is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kampala, Uganda.

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