Open Schools with Empty Chairs: Uganda’s Lost Generation

On Monday 10 January, Uganda’s schools reopened after almost two years, making it the longest school shutdown worldwide. But what looks like a silver lining, turns out to be quite tragic: Nearly a third of students have not returned to their school. What happened in the meantime and what consequences can be expected from this dramatic development?

Uganda’s government first ordered all schools to close in March 2020 – 10 million students suddenly had to stay home. Since schools weren’t going to reopen anytime soon, many of these students started working in the meantime, and their financial contributions have become vital to their families. Their income may remain indispensable in the near future as the emergence of the Omicron variant raises many questions around the trend that is to be expected of Uganda’s domestic economy. The Bank of Uganda stated that a third COVID-19 wave could make more stringent measures necessary and have a negative impact on economic performance. Moreover, some of the reopening measures might have to be reversed if the Omicron wave hits harder than expected.

Unlike elementary education, high school education in Uganda is tuition-based. Families whose jobs have been severely affected by the pandemic and are now struggling with economic insecurity, may find themselves unable to afford their children’s high school tuitions.

Besides that, around 3,500 elementary schools and 830 high schools stay permanently closed as a result of financial struggles. Many teachers have given up their job during the shutdown, as they did not receive any further payment, leading to an additional shortage of staff. When there are no alternatives in the region, students’ opportunity to continue their education and graduate at some point is immediately taken away from them when their school closes permanently.

Teenage pregnancies are another issue that may keep adolescent girls from returning to school. With 25% of girls aged 13–19 years conceiving a child, Uganda has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancies in sub-Saharan Africa. Girls who have become pregnant and given birth to a child during the school shutdown, now face the challenge of feeding and caring for their baby. Unfortunately, pregnant girls and teenage mothers are regularly confronted with discriminatory practices. A Ugandan bishop even called for pregnant girls and teenage mothers to be locked out of schools recently.

The sad reality has destroyed the dreams of millions of students. Bright futures that didn’t seem too far out of reach, have now become impossible to achieve. It is first and foremost children from poor and rural communities who felt the effects of the school shutdown. They were unable to participate in remote lessons introduced by education officials, thus 51% of students stopped learning when the schools closed. This won’t be without its consequences. Decades of educational progress in Uganda may become undone.

At this point, it is difficult to make any predictions about the long-term impact of the school shutdown. Things may, however, get worse if Uganda’s government decides to close the education sector once more in response to the Omicron wave.

Further reading:

The Guardian: Term starts in Uganda – but world’s longest shutdown has left schools in crisis

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