Uganda has ended the world’s longest school closure, ordering millions of students back to the classroom after a gap of nearly two years.
Some 15 million pupils have not attended school in Uganda since March 2020 when classrooms were shuttered as COVID-19 swept the world.
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Education Minister John Muyingo said all students would automatically resume classes a year above where they left off.
“All schools have implemented guidelines and standard operating procedures to ensure the safe return of children to schools, and measures have been put in place to ensure those who don’t comply do so,” he told the AFP news agency.
Muyingo said any private schools demanding fees above pre-pandemic rates would be sanctioned.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni lifted the bulk of COVID-19-related restrictions in the country in September last year, but he left schools shuttered.
He announced in October last year that schools would reopen early next year regardless of the vaccination uptake, which is currently low.
The rush to return children to school clogged traffic in the capital Kampala on Monday.
Child rights groups had criticised Uganda’s decision to keep schools fully or partially shuttered for 83 weeks, longer than anywhere else in the world.
Uganda has recorded 153,762 cases of COVID-19 and 3,339 deaths, according to the latest government figures issued on January 7.
Ugandans have shown reluctance to get jabbed so far despite President Museveni stating that “right now 4.7 million vaccines” are available with a further 23 million doses expected by the end of the year.
Students who took up manual jobs to support their families through the pandemic and may not return to education. Other students worry they may never catch up on the school work they have missed.
During the pandemic, many school-aged boys entered the child labour market to work in mining, street vending and sugarcane planting.
According to the National Planning Authority (NPA), up to 30 percent of students are expected to not return to their school desks due to teen pregnancy, early marriage and child labour.
According to Save the Children, up to one in five children in fragile countries, including Uganda, dropped out of school due to rising poverty, child marriage and child labour, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
The agency warned that of more dropouts as returning students who fell fallen behind in their learning, fear they have no chance of catching up.
Between March 2020 and June last year, the country reported a 22.5-percent jump in pregnancies among girls aged 10 to 24, data from UNICEF show.
With their careers on hold, many teachers have also switched to other jobs to help provide for their families.
Several institutions have converted to hotels or restaurants.