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Ugandan Refugee Camps Register Low Turnout of Students as Schools Reopen: Catholic Priest

Fr. Lazar Arasu, the Director of Don Bosco Palabek Refugee Services. Credit: Courtesy

Schools attended by refugees in Uganda have registered a low turnout of students as learners continue to throng the country’s various learning institutions that reopened on Monday, January 10 after nearly two years of closure.

Fr. Lazar Arasu, the chaplain in charge of pastoral work at Don Bosco Palabek Refugee Services, which runs a number of learning institutions in Uganda’s Catholic Archdiocese of Gulu, told ACI Africa that some refugee settlement camps in the country may have lost more than half their registered students, with an attendance of as low as 44 percent.

The member of the Salesians of Don Bosco (SDB) said that while a negligible percentage of learners from well-to-do families continued with online studies when schools in Uganda were closed in March 2020 in adherence to COVID-19 restrictions, many children, especially from poor backgrounds including refugees, ditched studies.

“Refugee Settlement camps are registering low turn up of students since Monday (January 10) when the schools were reopened. A few camps register only 44 percent of reporting (students),” Fr. Arasu told ACI Africa on Thursday, January 13.

He said that the 22-month closure of schools in the East African nation, which has been described as the world’s lengthiest has presented a lot of challenges for parents and caregivers who will now struggle to enroll their children back to class.

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Most affected, however, are refugee children and children from poor families, especially those in the country’s rural areas, the SDB member who has ministered in schools in Uganda for 20 years as head of Salesian schools says.

“The most affected groups of population are the refugee children and youth who can be about 1 million learners, rural population and others who are in the lower income families,” he says, and adds, “Unless there is good cooperation between various stakeholders and hard work from the teachers and students, many problems cannot be solved.”

Fr. Arasu highlights challenges that have come to the fore with the reopening of schools in Uganda, and says, “Now it is the responsibility of various stakeholders such as government bodies, civil society, parents, teachers, school owners and the learners to face them (the challenges) squarely.”

He notes that learners were redundant as schools remained closed, and explains, “In Uganda it is very popular to send children to boarding schools… Now parents who have four or more children are left with big challenges from staying with their children at home.”

The Indian-born Salesian Priest gives the example of urban families in Uganda that he says did not have adequate living space for teenage children of both sexes.

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Such families, Fr. Arasu says, could not monitor their children’s movements during the day as parents and guardians went about their business or daily duties.

“If children came from homes of single parents the problems are even more,” he says, adding that children who had greater aptitude for studies lost hope of learning again, and others failed to find meaningful leisure to pass their time.

The unpredictability of the lockdown also saw schools, especially private ones, run into debts as they tried to hold onto their businesses.

“Lockdown was unprecedented in history and its timeline was unpredictable. No one knew when the lockdown would be lifted and how the financial situation would be handled. It was reported some months that about 2,000 private schools will not be in a position to reopen due to financial constraints,” Fr. Arasu says.

He adds that many school owners lost their schools due to their inability to service bank loans and lack of money to pay rent for their premises.

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The Priest who has served in Uganda’s education department for two decades says that the East African country witnessed schools being turned into apartments, rentals, and poultry farms.

He says that now that the schools in Uganda have reopened, teachers who have returned to teaching need to undergo a period of orientation and counseling just as the students.

“Just as students’ emotional state needs to be strengthened, so do the teachers’”, Fr. Arasu says

According to the SDB member, a few upscale schools that are well facilitated and serving a small group of elite families were able to conduct lessons online.

Online classes were, however, only possible with less than 1 percent of the population, mostly families living in and around Uganda’s capital city, Kampala, Fr. Arasu says, and adds, “Though the government proposed online classes as an alternative way of learning, it was not possible with families that do not have electricity, digital gadgets, and financial means to have good Internet connectivity.”

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In Ugandan schools, students having missed close to two years of learning are behind by two classes. To address this gap, the Yoweri Museveni-led government gave a directive for automatic promotion of learners to the next class and the use of an abridged syllabus for saving the lost months, according to reports some weeks before the official reopening.

The abridged syllabus is not clear especially for lower classes and others sitting for national examinations, Fr. Arasu says, and adds, “It is however clear that the education standard will surely go down” and that the protracted school closure is expected to “have adverse effects on education for years to come.”

Fr. Arasu also commented on what he referred to as “an embarrassing and unprepared problem of teenage pregnancies during lockdown.”

The United Nations Population Fund has registered about 354,736 teenage pregnancies in 2020 and 196,499 in the first six months of 2021 in Uganda. “We can be sure that this figure is much higher, which is almost impossible for the families and other stakeholders to handle,” the Missionary Priest says in reference to the UNFPA statistics.

While releasing the school calendar on December 15, Uganda’s Minister of Education and Sports, Janet Kataha Museveni, advised the schools to allow pregnant and breast-feeding mothers to study, an announcement that has attracted mixed reactions.

Leaders of some churches in Uganda have criticized the Minister’s directive citing their duty to maintain minimum morality in their institutions and others expressing their inability to care for girls in this special situation and the possibility of stigma the pregnant girls are likely to suffer in school.

Fr. Arasu says that the mixed reactions have created an impasse between the government and the churches that own a significant percentage of schools in Uganda.

The chaplain of Don Bosco Palabek Refugee Services that provides home to thousands of refugees in Uganda also notes that the country’s population grew exponentially during COVID-19 lockdown, underscoring the need for the government to start expanding the education infrastructure.

“It is urgent to open new schools to accommodate the increased number of learners, especially in the nursery and lower classes. But no one seems to talk about it,” he says.

He also notes that many schools were dilapidated during the 22 months of closure. The schools need to repair their roofs, furniture, toilets and other infrastructure, Fr. Arasu says, and expresses bafflement that the Ugandan government has given primary schools a meager sum of USH.450,000.00 (US$130.00) to conduct facelifts.

The Catholic Priest in Uganda says that some schools have reported that their documents and learning materials have been destroyed by termites after two years of no use.

Amid the challenges, many schools that cannot cope have had to close shop in small towns and parents are forced to take their children to other schools, incurring new expenses while at it.