By Associate Professor Mesharch Katusiimeh Rwebiita
Your Excellency, as government is mulling over the fate of educational institutions in this COVID-19 new normal, a group is exerting pressure and petitioning you against the move to consider gradual reopening of schools. In fact, while officiating Heroes’ Day celebrations you talked of receiving pleas from parents requesting you not to open schools until the threat of coronavirus is out, some advising you to declare a dead year. Advocates of a dead year for schools are similar to the advocates of a continuous lockdown of the economy to defeat COVID-19. They seem not to think of trying other measures since no one is sure we will get a vaccine. Mr. President, I am not an expert and so I cannot claim to know what kind of decisions are realistically possible or appropriate. I can only offer suggestions based on what I read and observe.
Your Excellency, I have fairly followed the arguments for those against opening of schools. Their main argument is that the school environment is well suited to spread disease since students are often packed in small classrooms and for boarding schools in dormitories. Physical distancing guidelines are therefore impossible to implement and won’t work for the youngest children. In turn these children will spread it to the rest of the community.
Mr President, in your address to the nation on matters regarding COVID-19 on 18th May, 2020, you directed that schools can be opened but only for finalists. The MOES started planning how the learners can go to school but it seems they hit a dead end with stakeholders making it hard and coming up with what I may call outlandish and even outrageous demands as pre-conditions to reopening schools. This and the unfortunate increase in community infections for COVID-19 could have informed your decision to extend opening of schools by a month.
At the moment the MOES seem not to be making further steps to come up with guidelines for reopening schools. Some analysts have poured cold water on your parental directive that finalists should return to school so they are not interrupted in this critical stage of their educational career. Some people are saying that if schools are to open let all classes be considered instead of gradual opening in a staggering form and probably shifts. They forget COVID-19 demands sacrifices and in any case while other students may read on their own and be promoted to the next class, it is impossible for finalists because they will need to sit for a national exam to acquire a national certificate before they move to the next academic level.
Your Excellency, I have cared to find out those who are making the loudest noise against gradual re-opening of schools. Yes, they may be genuinely concerned about the safety of children but they are not proposing practical measures on how to handle teaching and learning in case a vaccine is not developed. We all know that online teaching and learning benefits a few in Uganda. This group advocating for schools being closed indefinitely comprises of urban elites with formal employment including those employed by government in public primary and secondary schools. They are earning a salary and have facilities at home. Their children are enjoying virtual platforms as they continue homeschooling. Others are teaching their own children at home or hiring private teachers to teach children in their comfort of their homes. A good number of schools in Kampala and other urban areas have continued teaching online and those with TVs are learning. Even if schools close for a year or two, the children of these parents are unlikely to repeat classes. They will progress to the next class. Mr. President these could be the category of parents who call you not to re-open schools. They are the ones threatening not to send their children to schools until the government declares zero Covid-19 cases or till a vaccine is available. This group has nothing to lose with schools staying closed. I can be classified in this group. Over the last 3 months, I have been in charge of my children’s education. I have even been thinking of opting‐out of formal schooling altogether because I have been inspired by the learning and growth of my children in all aspects during this time at home. This COVID-19 crisis, while terrible overall, has revealed to me that children can be educated without being formally being in our normal and expensive schools.
Mr. President, those who are like me in a privileged position to do home schooling or follow virtual classes or benefit from TV lessons and newspaper pull outs are very few probably less than 5% of parents in Uganda. We must think about other parents and children who are not schooling at all the moment schools closed. You are in a very privileged position and we are lucky to have a president who appreciates scientific information and makes use of intelligence information to make decisions for the common good. I am sure you are already doing more consultations and you will make the best decision to help a common man deep in villages with no access to internet, TVs and even radio.
Recently, I was upcountry and I realized there is hardly social distancing in villages. Even in urban areas, it is the same situation. Children are always together in big groups playing football and other games. It is not only children but adults as well. Children go to public places to fetch water. You will find over 100 children lining up on a borehole or other public water places like protected wells. Schools are closed but may be more vulnerable out of school than in school. It could be even easier to conduct social distancing in an organized environment such as schools than the present circumstances in villages or parents going to work in crowded places in urban centers and come back with a high possibility of infecting their children.
Mr. President, I have realized some countries in Europe are reopening schools even when daily infections in these countries are more than 500 a day. Of course we must keep mindful of the fact that Uganda is fundamentally different from the setting of the developed countries. However, Mr. President, it is important to find out why they are taking such kind of risk. It could be a calculated risk. It seems schools are reopening in countries around the world in response to a substantial body of evidence that children are largely unaffected by Covid-19 and minimally contagious when they get infected. In fact it is said that reopening of schools in 22 European countries has not led to any significant increase in coronavirus infections among children, parents or staff.
Mr. President, you may need to consider scientific reports that stress that from early on in the pandemic there were indications that children, miraculously, weren’t suffering from Covid-19 to anywhere near the extent as adults. A report summary of 72,314 cases by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association on February 24, noted that just 1 percent of patients were under 10 years old, and another 1 percent were aged 10 to 19. Further, there were zero deaths in the youngest cohort. Certainly children can become quite sick with Covid-19, but considering the untold millions of people exposed to this virus, such outcomes have been extremely rare. As time has passed, the evidence that children are almost universally spared has only gotten stronger. Accordingly in Italy, just about 2 percent of cases have involved children or teenagers. Remarkably, just two out of the country’s roughly over 30,000 recorded deaths from the disease involved people under the age of 19. Data from New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, shows seven deaths for those under 18 years of age, out of more than 14,000 in total.
Is it true that the safety of students may not be threatened, on the whole, by Covid-19? Is true that children do not contract this disease at scale; and when they do their symptoms are very likely to be mild or nonexistent? Mr. President your able researchers and advisers in your office, may get you more information.
Kári Stefánsson, in an interview following the publication of an Icelandic study he coauthored in The New England Journal of Medicine had this to say “What is interesting is that even if children do get infected, they are less likely to transmit the disease to others than adults. We have not found a single instance of a child infecting parents.” A report from early April by the British Columbia Center for Disease Control and Ministry of Health stated: “There is no documented evidence of child-to-adult transmission. There are no documented cases of children bringing an infection into the home, from school or otherwise.”
The journal Clinical Infectious Diseases published a case study of a boy with Covid-19 who, despite attending three different schools (elementary, language, and a Montessori) and a ski club, and interacting with 172 classmates and teachers while symptomatic, did not transmit the virus to anyone. Australia’s National Center for Immunization Research and Surveillance published a report with similar results of a study in New South Wales: From March to mid-April, 18 individuals in 15 schools were confirmed as Covid-19 cases. Among the 735 students and 128 staff members who were in close contact with those initial cases, just two children became infected. Even more strikingly, “no teacher or staff member contracted Covid-19 from any of the initial school cases,” the report stated.
Mr. President, it will be good to make a decision that may not impose heavier costs on underprivileged families that are the majority in Uganda. Prolonged stay at home has been linked to escalated rates of child abuse and we stand to lose the gains the NRM government has registered overall. Those in charge of planning may look at results from other countries in deciding what to do. So far these outcomes may be encouraging, but it’s still early. But what is clear is the decision not to reopen schools, may do more harm than good. It may even not make sense in the long run considering the negative effects it has on children.
Your Excellency, there are always worries and questions, but even so we should not push school to one side in this current difficult period, because there will be terrible damage if we lose a generation of children who have been stopped from going to school for several months or even years. The return to school as you had rightly directed should happen progressively to make sure everyone is not going back at the same time. But making a step for at least one class to start is a very important step to get the system going. If a decision is taken, I will share practical measures to respond to the ‘outlandish’ and probably ‘outrageous’ demands from education stakeholders related to re-opening or not reopening of schools.
The writer is the Dean Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences & Associate Professor (Governance) at Kabale University. He can be contacted on email firstname.lastname@example.org Tel 0772620852 Twitter @Rwebiita
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