Uganda Schools Open for First Time in 83 Weeks, Boarding Kids Carry Mattresses in Streets

Children attending boarding schools in Uganda could be seen carrying their mattresses in the streets and causing traffic jams in the area as schools welcomed back students on Monday after being closed for the past two years.

Schools in Uganda suffered from the world's longest disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic. The schools have been completely shut down or partially shut down since March 2020, more than 83 weeks, according to the U.N. cultural agency.

The shutdown has affected nearly 10 million students. However, some students were able to resume classes in February 2021, but another complete lockdown was enforced again in June after an increase of COVID-19 cases.

Some are uncertain about how long schools will remain open amid the newest outbreak from the highly contagious Omicron variant. Fagil Mandy, former government school inspector, urged school administrators to monitor the spread of COVID-19 in crowded classrooms carefully.

Health authorities reported a 10 percent positivity rate in COVID-19 cases over the past week, compared with nearly zero reported in December.

Mandy warned that the cases "will spread very fast" among the newly opened and crowded schools. Although some parents are more than ready for the schools to be reopened.

Felix Okot, the father of a 6-year-old in kindergarten said the schools can't "wait forever" for the COVID-19 pandemic to be over. "The future of our kids, the future of our nation, is at stake," he said.

Uganda Schools Reopen
Uganda's schools reopened to students on Monday, ending the world's longest school disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Above, Pupils walk around the school compound during break time at Kitante Primary School in Kampala, Uganda. on January 10. Hajarah Nalwadda/AP Photo

"Inevitably, we have to open up schools," said Okot.

The protracted school lockdown proved controversial in a country where measures aimed at stemming the spread of the virus were ignored by many. Vaccine skepticism, even among health workers, remains a problem, with growing reports of fake COVID-19 vaccination cards sold in downtown Kampala.

Many students returning to school are believed to have had no help during the lockdown. Most public schools, which serve the vast majority of children in Uganda, were unable to offer virtual schooling. The Associated Press reported in November on students in a remote Ugandan town where weeds grew in classrooms and some students worked in a swamp as gold miners.

Some critics pointed out that the government of President Yoweri Museveni—who has held power for 36 years and whose wife is the education minister—did little to support home-based learning. Museveni justified the lockdown by insisting that infected students were a danger to their parents and others.

"There are many things which can't be predicted right now. The turnout of students is unpredictable, the turnout of teachers is unpredictable," said Mandy.

"I am more worried that many children will not return to school for various reasons, including school fees."

Welcoming the reopening of Uganda's schools, Save the Children warned that "lost learning may lead to high dropout rates in the coming weeks without urgent action," including what it described as catch-up clubs.

The aid group warned in a statement Monday of a wave of dropouts "as returning students who have fallen behind in their learning fear they have no chance of catching up."

It remains to be seen how long Uganda's schools will remain open, with an alarming rise in virus cases in recent days. Museveni has warned of a possible new lockdown if intensive care units reach 50 percent occupancy.

Hoping for a smooth return to school, authorities waived any COVID test requirements for students. An abridged curriculum also has been approved under an arrangement to automatically promote all students to the next class.

Uganda has received foreign support toward the reopening of schools.

The U.N. children's agency and the governments of the U.K. and Ireland announced financial support focusing on virus surveillance and the mental health of students and teachers in 40,000 schools. They said their support was key for Uganda's school system to remain open.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.