The gate that once proudly displayed the name of Godwins primary school in Kampala has been removed. The compound, where pupils played at break time, is now a parking area for trucks ferrying goods to the nearby market, while the classrooms have been turned into a travellers’ lodge.
Uganda’s schools were ordered to reopen on Monday 10 January, after nearly two years of closure – the longest school shutdown in the world – but not all were able to welcome pupils back. Godwins, in Kalerwe in Kawempe division, is one of the many schools that will never reopen. It had been in existence for 20 years catering to children whose parents work in nearby Kalerwe market.
Harriet Namubiru, a charcoal seller whose two grandchildren, aged eight and 10, attended the school, says its closure is a “tragedy that has befallen us”.
“The management of the school called a meeting and they told us ‘It has become very hard for us to run again. We shall not open,’” she says. “It was like lightning or something [had hit us]. Some parents who were in the meeting fainted. Some fell sick for weeks.”
Kampala’s suburbs are littered with ghost structures that were once schools. Some buildings were sold, while others have been destroyed to make way for real estate development. Kampala Capital City Authority said that more than 40 schools in the city have closed for good. Local media is awash with reports of schools turned into bars, restaurants or travellers’ accommodation.
There are no official figures on the number of schools that have failed to reopen countrywide.
Kidcare nursery and primary school in the suburb of Najjera is now a depot for beverages. The dusty classrooms and dining hall at nearby Najjera progressive school lie empty; some of Najjera’s classroom blocks have been destroyed to make way for a real estate development.
At Makerere highway school in Kivulu, a Kampala slum, pupils were welcomed by heavy padlocks. The building owner says she “no longer wants school business on her property”. She says previous schools have not paid rent for two years and she has opted to use the space for other businesses.
Upcountry, some students arrived to find school roofs blown off or classrooms taken over by anthills. They were forced study under trees.
Covid guidelines mean extra costs for schools and parents. Schools unable to meet these and the demands by some landlords that they pay rent arrears will stay shut – and many may never reopen.
Namubiru is still searching for an affordable school for her grandchildren.
“It’s difficult. Our school [Godwins] understood us. It accepted our children, and we brought tuition fees whenever we could,” she says, explaining that new schools are expensive and require fees upfront.
The reopening of schools was met with relief by pupils, teachers and parents, but the turnout at many was low. At Chegere primary school in the northern Apac district, just one pupil appeared on the first day.
Local media reports zero turnouts at some schools in the central district of Nakasongola.
Nicholas Bwire, director of St Nicholas primary school in Mukono, central Uganda, says he registered few pupils but is optimistic that more will attend.
“The turnout for learners has been poor. Parents are still worried that they may bring children, pay tuition fees only for schools to be closed again after a few weeks. This happened to them early last year when schools closed just days after opening,” he says. “[Parents] are telling us that ‘we’re coming on Monday’.”
Bwire says he is happy that all his teachers except one showed up. All his non-teaching staff resigned, but he hopes to recruit new ones.
Christine Babirye, a teacher at a community kindergarten in Kampala, says parents cited fees and lack of materials as reasons for not sending their children in the first week. She says her school has lowered tuition costs and encouraged parents to bring pupils.
For those returning after 83 weeks away from the classroom, it is a cheerful moment.
“I feel very good to be back at school. [Life at] home was boring,” says Mark Kibuuka, 14, a pupil at Bat valley primary school in Kampala.
Fellow pupil Shatrah Nanyange, 11, adds: “My mother told me ‘If you go to school, be a good child and if you study well, I will give you everything you want.’ I am doing just that.”
But experts warn the impact of long closure on schools and pupils cannot be overstated. Before the pandemic, Uganda was battling poor educational outcomes. This will worsen as dropouts grow.
Dr Ibrahim Kasirye, a researcher at the thinktank Economic Policy Research Centre, says: “Inequalities in access to education have been exacerbated by the nearly two years closure of schools.”
“The variation in the ability to access alternative forms of learning offered to kids during the lockdowns such as using radios and televisions, newspapers, and the internet has created two worlds within the country– – one that lost most of the two years of schooling and another, a ‘first world’ that managed the crisis and continued learning,” he says, urging special attention for the group that did not learn at all.
Dr Mary Goretti Nakabugo, the executive director of Uwezo, a charity promoting access to learning in Uganda, says the country’s education sector is “in a crisis”.
“We must ensure that all learners go back to school, but also what happens when they are back matters to ensure that they are not worried and are able to stay.”