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Be Parents to Learners, Priest in Uganda Tells Teachers as Schools Reopen after 22 Months

Logo Uganda Episcopal Conference (UEC). Credit: Courtesy

Schools in Uganda are receiving children who have undergone transformation during what has been described as the world’s longest schools’ closure, a Catholic Priest serving at the Uganda Episcopal Conference (UEC) has said, and made an appeal to teachers in the East African nation to “be parents” to the learners.

In an interview with ACI Africa, the Executive Secretary for Education at UEC projected that a significant number of learners would not report back to school after their lengthy stay at home and that those who are reporting back have undergone various “life-changing” experiences.

“Children who are going to school have undergone various traumatic and life changing experiences. Others have acquired undesirable social behaviors. We urge their teachers to be more of parents to these children than just their tutors,” Fr. Ronald Okello said in the Wednesday, January 12 interview.

Schools in Uganda reopened on Monday, January 10, bringing to an end the closure that was implemented in March 2020 as part of the country’s COVID-19 restrictions.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni lifted a majority of the restrictions in the country in September last year, but he left schools closed.

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Fr. Okello, whose office coordinates Uganda’s 19 Catholic Dioceses in matters education, said that children who may not have an opportunity to go back to school include female learners who got pregnant during the schools’ closure. Others are boys who found employment while they stayed away from school.

“Many young girls are pregnant and are not sure they will resume schooling. Boys, on the other hand, sought casual labor and may never go back to class again. They have already found comfort in whatever little money they are making,” he said.

While at home, some children had been exposed to domestic violence and other forms of traumatic experiences, the member of the Clergy of Gulu Archdiocese in Uganda noted, and underscored the need for the children to find healing in their schools.

Fr. Okello told ACI Africa that the situation in Uganda had been dire during the schools’ closure and that various groups of people had been affected, including learners, their parents, and even teachers.

“Some teachers in private schools, those who are not on the government payroll left and may never return to teach again. We have seen many venture into other income generating activities including the taxi business,” he said, and added that schools may experience a high learner to teacher ratio as they reopen.

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Many parents also lost their jobs during lockdown and may never be able to support their children fully as they go back to school, Fr. Okello said, and appealed to school heads to provide favorable payment plans to parents who have been worse hit by the pandemic.

Schools in Uganda may also experience congestion after most private schools closed shop owing to the pandemic, the Catholic Priest told ACI Africa in the January 12 interview.

“Here in Uganda, many private schools were shut down permanently because they were not receiving any support from the government. Many have loans to service and may never reopen,” the UEC official said, and added, “This will have a terrible impact on the remaining schools since they have to admit a huge number of learners.”

The lengthy stay of school going children at home had, however, provided parents with the opportunity to bond more with their children, Fr. Okello observed.

“We presume that there was a lot more parenting at home while schools remained closed. Parents also had an opportunity to bond with their children. A lot of cultural and family values that are not taught at school were, hopefully, passed on to children while they stayed at home,” he said.

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The Education official at the UEC said that parents in the country had, however, welcomed the reopening of schools with excitement.

“This is welcome news in all parts of the country. The schools’ closure in Uganda has been the longest in the world and everyone was frustrated,” Fr. Okello who has served at the Education department for four years said, and added, “As a department, we are a big stakeholder in the country’s education matters and we were constantly being pestered to push for the reopening of schools.”

Aljazeera reports that child rights groups had criticized Uganda’s decision to keep schools fully or partially closed for 83 weeks, longer than anywhere else in the world.

As schools remained closed in Uganda, the Education department at the UEC carried out various activities to keep in touch with learners, including organizing talk shows in collaboration with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

The Education department of the Catholic Bishops in Uganda also organized sessions with parents on key family care practices, Fr. Okello told ACI Africa during the January 12 interview.

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In Uganda, the Catholic Education department links the country’s ministry of Education and Sports in terms of policy formulation and guidance.

The department also oversees the teaching of religious education in schools in the country, Fr. Okello told ACI Africa.

He explained, “We see to it that religious education is appreciated in our schools. At the moment, we are having a discussion about the new curriculum that has made the teaching of religious education optional at a certain level. We want the subject to be made mandatory to all learners at the basic level.”

Additionally, the education department oversees quality assurance in Uganda’s tertiary institutions and also runs the Catholic Schools Youth ministry as part of an international evangelization ministry in learning institutions.

The department is also in charge of the Integrated Early Childhood Development where it runs various projects for children from infant stage to primary level in partnership with UNICEF.

Among activities lined up in the department as schools in Uganda reopen is the plan to be “more close to learners and schools,” Fr. Okello told ACI Africa January 12.

“We want to reconstruct the Catholic image in our schools. We realize that we have lost a lot in terms of membership in Catholic movements in schools. Some of these movements have died and we have plans to revive them,” the member of the Clergy of Uganda’s Gulu Archdiocese said.