Op-ed by Dr. Doreen Mulenga, UNICEF Representative to Uganda
At the end of March, Uganda joined countries around the world in shutting its schools to ward off the insidious threat of the novel coronavirus that was already making itself present in East Africa. With close to 15 million children in Uganda affected by those closures, government is currently balancing the public health requirements of the nation with the urgent educational and developmental needs of future generations.
Schools, as we all know, not only teach children reading, writing, and arithmetic. They also provide nutrition, health, and hygiene services, along with mental health and psychosocial support, while reducing incidents of violence against children, gender-based violence, and unintended pregnancy. With each passing day that schools stay closed, the most vulnerable children will be the hardest hit. We know from previous crises that the longer such children are out of school, the less likely they are to return. Given Uganda's demography---with 54 per cent of the population under the age of 18 ---any disruptions to the education of our children will not only threaten the dreams and opportunities of those children, but the sustainable development of the nation, as well. Because of this, the safe reopening of schools should be given the same priority and consideration as the safe reopening of the economy.
Keep children learning
As the UN children's agency, UNICEF is committed to supporting countries in meeting their obligations to educate all children at all times. Across the globe, UNICEF is working with governments and other partners to provide opportunities for children to continue learning during lock downs, while ensuring that when children eventually return to school, their physical environments are hygienic, safe, and stimulating.
In Uganda, the Ministry of Education and Sports, with support from UNICEF and other education development partners, came together to rapidly formulate and implement the Education Sector COVID-19 Response Plan. Faced with an unforeseen crisis of this magnitude, the response has been impressive. Television, radio, mobile phones, and internet are used to provide lessons for learners at home. For the most deprived children who lack access to technology, the Ministry has developed, printed, and begun distributing paper copies of self-learning materials. The government is mobilizing district local governments to help implement the COVID-19 Education Response Plan, with UNICEF staff in Moroto, Gulu, and Mbarara providing technical and logistical support.
**During the lock down **
To prevent children from falling behind, to help them recover from education gaps and to keep children learning, the Ministry of Education and Sports, in partnership with UNICEF and the National Information Technology Authority of Uganda (NITA-U), have also been promoting a free-of-charge easy to use digital learning platform -- Kolibri -- which the Ministry hopes will serve as a foundation for future digitized learning. Kolibri has inclusive educational content for primary school learners, along with science and math content for secondary school learners, all approved by the National Curriculum Development Center (NCDC).
Meanwhile, UNICEF is working with the government to ensure that when schools do reopen, they are physically safe environments for students and teachers alike. UNICEF has long prioritized the revitalization of WASH infrastructure in schools around the country. In the wake of this pandemic, investments in WASH facilities and basic sanitation materials will need to be ramped-up. Fortunately, schools are some of the best places to promote public health, with children often eager to serve as advocates for disease prevention and control within their homes and communities. If done right, we can recover from this crisis stronger than ever.
UNICEF recently launched the global #Reimagine campaign to prevent the COVID-19 pandemic from becoming a lasting crisis for children. As countries around the world recover from this emergency, we need to lay the groundwork for building back better than before.
As President Museveni has noted in his speeches to the nation, the medical professionals and scientists who are leading Uganda's current fight against COVID-19 are the same ones who benefited from the educational investments of prior generations. Now, more than ever, we need to reflect on the educational legacies that our generation is bequeathing to the ones that follow us. The contribution of today's teachers will influence the future of this country.
Reimagining the future of Uganda means investing enough in future generations to ensure that they have the knowledge, opportunities, and creativity to lead us through the challenges of tomorrow. Doing that means ensuring that Uganda's educational institutions meet the minimum standards required to foster quality learning in safe and motivating environments.
As UNICEF, we are committed to accompanying the government and other stakeholders in scaling up support to help children continue their learning now, while transforming the education system for the benefit of all girls and boys moving forward. Unless we collectively act now to protect children's education, Uganda will feel the burden of COVID-19 long after we've beaten back the coronavirus itself.