This is a special month for millions of learners in Uganda after the country ended the world’s longest school closure due to Covid-19, ordering over 15 million students back to the classroom after an absence of nearly two years.
This raises two strategic questions, which are also relevant to other East Africa Community member states. First, what impact has Covid-19 had on education and learning? Second, what did Uganda do to prepare learners for effective learning during closure and when schools are opened?
We do not have data to comprehensively answer the two questions–hopefully, graduate students will pick them up in their research and provide answers. This is because no research nor assessment has been done in Uganda and other East African countries.
But one thing is certain: that school closures due to Covid-19 have brought significant disruptions to learning in East Africa and across the world. Emerging evidence from Unesco, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the World Bank, researchers and government reports indicate that even with substantial technology capability in high-income countries, the pandemic has given rise to learning losses and increased inequality in education as a result of the abrupt transition to virtual learning.
Such emerging data can be used to predict outcomes in low-income countries. The learning losses and inequality are likely to be even more acute in low-income countries like Uganda, where there is much less technological capability and the majority of families live below the national poverty line.
In Uganda, for over 40 per cent of children, the return to school will not mean a return to normalcy, if the experience from Kenya is anything to go by.
First, because of the learning loss that children from poor backgrounds experienced during school closure, and second, because some children will miss school because of early marriages, pregnancies, and child labour.
Learning loss is a disturbing phenomenon whereby children’s education, rather than being paused during school closures, actually goes into reverse.
Students from privileged backgrounds, having an enabling technological environment and eager and able to learn, continue learning even with schools closed through alternative learning opportunities (Internet, smartphones, TVs, radio et cetera). However, those from disadvantaged backgrounds (70 to 80 per cent of learners in East Africa) remain shut out when schools are closed. Instead of learning, they are idle and forced to join the labour force or get married.
The pandemic crisis has exposed many inadequacies and inequalities in education systems in East Africa. From access to the broadband and computers needed for online education, and the supportive environment needed to focus on learning, to the misalignment between resources and learners’ needs.
Learners in the most marginalised groups, who don’t have access to digital learning resources or lack the resilience and engagement to learn on their own, are at risk of falling behind or being left out. The majority of teachers, especially those in rural and remote areas, have limited technical capacity and are less exposed to digital technologies to effectively support virtual learning.
To reduce and reverse the long-term negative effects of Covid-19 on education, OECD countries have conducted comprehensive assessments, are implementing learning recovery programmes, protecting education budgets, preparing for future shocks and building resilience. But how prepared is Uganda (and other countries like Kenya where schools reopened in 2020)? The following reflections are critical:
· Was context (school environment) and risk analysis of reopening schools comprehensively done, and results used to inform decision making?
· Was learning outcome and status of learning loss done to identify students who are left behind and how to support them?
· Were learning recovery programmes designed and will they be effectively implemented?
· Was a comprehensive monitoring, evaluation and adaptive management plan developed, and logistics for implementation put in place?
· How prepared are school leaders and teachers to implement recovery programmes and promote effective learning for all, especially for students from disadvantaged and vulnerable households?
· Are there additional financial resources allocated to education, in particular to schools with majority disadvantaged and poor students, for learning recovery and building resilience?
As Uganda enters the Covid-19 recovery phase, it will be critical for EAC countries to reflect on the role of educational systems–and particularly vocational and university education–in fostering resilient societies.
During the pandemic, remote learning became a lifeline for education but the opportunities that digital technologies offer go well beyond stoppage solutions during a crisis.
Digital technologies offer entirely new answers to the question of what people learn, how they learn, and where and when they learn.
Technological systems can adapt the learning experience to suit students’ personal learning styles with great granularity and precision. East Africa countries must move from promises of the digital revolution in education, as was in Kenya in 2013, to action.
But, more critical, the pandemic has exposed our countries’ vulnerability to crisis and revealed how precarious and interdependent the economies can be.
Ministries of Education in East Africa must wake up from business as usual and get into planning, researching, assessing and funding recovery programmes and building resilience in education to 2030 and beyond.
The writer is a development researcher and evaluation specialist. [email protected]
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