Isaac Newton School’s Covid-19 Challenge

Back in February, Isaac Newton School was doing well. It enrolled 600 students for the new school year – 400 boarders and 200 day-students. The O-level exam results, published the same month, placed the school 143rd out of 4,123 schools in the country. Results were particularly good in Science subjects. A month later, the school received the best A-level results in its history, placing it in the top 5 of 35 schools in Kalungu District.

In March, Uganda had its first Covid-19 case and since the 1st April the school, together with all educational institutions in Uganda, have been closed as part of the Covid lockdown.

Cleaning school for reopening

On October 15th the school was allowed to reopen but only for O and A-level finalists. Until December, schools have been instructed to operate a long teaching day, from 7am to 9pm at night, to complete the missed work from term 2. Work that should have been covered in the third term of 2020 will be undertaken between January and March 2021.  To accommodate this shift, the 2020 exams have been moved back to April 2021, to enable students to be assessed on the full syllabus.

Before schools reopen, they must obtain a Certificate to show they meet the following provisions:

  1. Provide hand-washing facilities at the main gate and outside every toilet, classroom, computer lab, science lab, dormitory and library.
  2. Have infra-red temperature guns and agree to take temperatures twice daily.
  3. Display posters on Covid prevention.
  4. Prepare rooms to house teachers, who are required to sleep on school premises.
  5. Have a standby vehicle in case of emergency.
  6. Have alcohol-based sanitizer gel.
  7. Use anti-mosquito repellent where students work to cut malaria transmission.
  8. Ensure that vitamin-rich fruits are included on the school menu.
  9. Divide students into smaller groups of not more than 40. This increases staff costs.
  10. Limit access to the school to outsiders.

Most schools in Uganda are private since the liberalisation of education in the year 2000. Isaac Newton’s district has 35 high schools, 28 private and 7 state schools and, to date, Isaac Newton is one of only 5 schools to meet the stringent requirements for reopening.

To limit the spread of Covid, schools are no longer allowed to mix day and boarding

Newest boys’ dormitory

students. As Isaac Newton has 4 good dormitories, it has been designated for boarding only. To limit transmission, room occupancy has to be reduced from 8 to 3 students. This limits the capacity of the school to 120 students, which will drastically cut fee income and put a severe strain on school finances. Additionally, the Ministry of Education expects the school to accommodate some bright students from schools that have not been allowed to reopen. Priority for places will go to existing Isaac Newton students but, after consulting families, Peter Kisirinya, the school’s Director, has agreed to take 25 O-level and 13 A-level students from other schools. New students have had to consent to relocation and to pay full fees. As part of the deal, the government has agreed to attach to the school a paramedic from Masaka Hospital with a standby ambulance, should students or staff need urgent treatment. Some of the incoming students were studying French, which is not offered at Isaac Newton, so a French teacher will be brought in to support these students.

Survival during school closure

School closure from April to October was challenging for staff and students alike. Many teachers returned to their crop growing roots. The Headteacher, Ezra, grew the local staple foods of maize and beans, but supplemented ginger to bring in extra income. 12 teachers formed a cooperative to grow tomatoes as a large-scale cash crop, with a view to selling in Kenya and South Sudan. They had a fantastic harvest but the closure of national borders, due to Covid, prevented them from exporting their crop, so they earned little from the venture. Lydia, a teacher who is a single mother, bought fresh caught fish from Lake Victoria and sold it to the growing population around the school. She managed to sustain her family in this way. Two teachers crossed to Northern Tanzania to work in the gold mines. Another used his motorcycle as a bodaboda (taxi) to earn money ferrying passengers.

The biggest problem experienced by staff during lock down was an inability to fully pay their house rent, and a few have suffered eviction. The fact that food has been cheap during this period has really helped those who do not grow their own.

Students labouring on new school hall

Most students come from subsistence farming backgrounds and they became labourers on the land and did work around the home. Four students were employed as labourers by the contractor constructing the new hall at school. They received enough money to help their families and saved enough for two-terms school fees. 8 teachers and 3 non-teaching staff found alternative employment and will not be returning to school.

Effect of Covid Measures on local incomes

The Covid lockdown has devastated the local economy. Most local people are subsistence farmers with small scale coffee production. Others, who relied upon trading activities, labouring or working for others, lost their income during the Covid lockdown, which closed all shops, markets and public transport. Agriculture was not locked so local people worked their land more intensively. With the extra care and attention, yields of staple

Subsistence smallholding

food crops, such as maize and beans, were high. Unfortunately, the biggest market for surplus food was from schools and neighbouring countries. The closure of schools and international borders left little demand for their produce and prices fell dramatically. Many small traders of non-food items lost their livelihoods through the closure of local markets. Likewise, bars and entertainment businesses closed, and still remain so. The financial situation is dire. It has caused huge distress to local families, who do not have the capacity to pay school fees now our school is reopening.

Isaac Newton has become a vital source of income to the community. Many local people provide the school with food and services. Emergency help from UHST has enabled permanent staff to be paid 50% of their normal pay and part-time employees to be given emergency food parcels. However, the school has been unable to help those local farmers who provide the ingredients for school meals nor local transport operators who ferry people and goods to and from school.

The school encouraged students to borrow books from the library during the closure. Unfortunately, most were unable to take advantage of this. In the daytime, they had chores to do and, in the evening, there was no light for reading, as few houses have electricity. Girls particularly experienced a problem due to the lack of sanitary pads, which UHST generally provides through the schools.

A distressing consequence of sending children home from school is that some, especially orphans, have suffered exploitation and abuse. We have learned that 4 of our girl students have become pregnant. Religious schools would refuse to have such girls back, because they believe they serve as poor role models. As a Humanist school, the Isaac Newton Headteacher will visit the families of affected girls to explain to parents that the school would like the girls return to school to complete their education.

With fewer children in school with even less capacity than before to pay school fees, Isaac Newton and the other Humanist schools need additional cash support to help them through the Covid crisis. If you would like to help with this, then please visit the donation page of our website: or contact Steve Hurd for further information: +44 (0) 1782 750338.