Meeting the Covid-19 Challenge to the Humanist Schools

Robert Magara from Kanungu meeting Dan Kasanda, our accountant

The Uganda Government made a robust response to Covid.

When the first cases arrived on a flight from Dubai, passengers were traced and isolated. Everyone in this first group recovered from the infection. The government started a national lock-down in April. Shops, markets, educational institutions  and public transport were closed. Many people in Uganda lost their livelihoods and in rural areas in particular families were unable to get produce to market, so they lost their only source of income. Household savings have been used up and families are unable to pay school fees.

For months the infection rate remained low and nobody died. Unfortunately, Uganda is the main outlet to the sea for businesses in Eastern Congo and Rwanda, so lorry drivers from those countries and from Kenya, gradually brought cases of Covid into the country. Numbers of infections and deaths from Covid have progressively increased but, even by October,  total recorded cases were only just over 9,000 and deaths have only just reached 85 – way below the levels in Europe and North America.

Nevertheless, the impact on schools has been devastating. All schools were closed from the beginning of April. Children have lost more than 5 months of schooling. This sets back their education but has also had devastating social consequences for a substantial minority of children. Children have had to labour on the land or at home. In the Bundibugyo area, near Katumba School, small children have had to do forced labour carrying heavy sacks of charcoal to local markets. Some girls have been forced into early marriages or into prostitution to earn money for their destitute families. Some have become pregnant.

Meanwhile teachers and other school staff have been sent home, in many schools without pay and they have had to resort to subsistence farming to survive. Thanks to the donations we receive from UHST supporters, we have provided funds to allow Isaac Newton and Mustard Seed Schools to pay 50% of normal salaries, and we have provided some very limited hardship funds to be given out on a discretionary basis to staff at Katumba and Kanungu Primary Schools.

Schools are being allowed to reopen in October for Primary Leaving, O and A-level exam candidates, and for other children in January. However, they must be inspected before opening and given a certificate to show they are Covid compliant. This requires class sizes to have a maximum of 40 (many schools have classes of over 1oo), dormitories to have well spaced beds with windows permanently open (despite the danger from mosquitos and malaria!?), hand washing stations throughout the schools and a school nurse with an infra-red temperature gun to test children’s temperatures twice a day. Schools with boarding are not allowed also to take day students (the Humanist schools take both) and staff have to live on the school premises so there is minimal movement in and out of the schools. The upshot of these measures is that the number of children in each school has to be reduced. Fee income will fall and this will make it difficult for many schools to cover their costs.

The need to provide furlough payments for staff during the school closure and to meet the higher running costs as they open is proving to be a real challenge to UHST. Our reserves have reached rock bottom.

Covid is a much lower cause of death in Uganda than neo-natal problems, malaria, HIV/AIDS, respiratory and gastro-intestinal infections. That said, at the moment, Covid dominates national policy in Uganda. The anti-covid measures have been so draconian that they have seriously disrupted normal social functions, like education, as well as destroying livelihoods and increasing poverty in an already poor country.

As a charity we are determined to do our very best to ensure that the Humanist Schools survive this challenge.  The Humanist School movement in Uganda has been growing. There is growing recognition that our schools provide decent standards of education and welfare and strong underlying values. At this time we need to ensure that our schools come through this pandemic, so that they can act as beacons for inclusive Humanist education based on reason, compassion and tolerance. We and the schools are grateful for all the help you can give us to meet the challenge.