This week 18-year-old Fridah Namuganza is taking orders and wiping down tables in the Ugandan restaurant where she works – but she wishes she was putting on a new school uniform and returning to classes like her friend Rachael Nalwanga.
The tale of the two friends – one a dropout, one joyfully resuming her education - is also the tale of millions of Uganda’s children as many went back to classes on Monday after a nearly two-year shutdown of schools induced by Covid-19.
The shutdown in the east African country was the longest disruption of educational institutions globally due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to the United Nations.
When the closure went into effect, 15.5 million students had their education disrupted, according to Dennis Mugimba, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Education.
Universities and higher education students had returned to school in a phased manner, but kindergarten and lower primary students, approximately six million students, hadn’t stepped in a classroom until today, said Mugimba.
“I am excited that I am going back to school. It has not been easy for me to keep safe at home for this long but I thank God, who has kept me safe,” 16-year-old Rachael told Reuters.
“I have all along longed to go back to school so that I can achieve my dream career of becoming an accountant.”
‘A necessary closure’
But Ugandan officials expect a third of children who were in school when the pandemic began will not return, which could prove a heavy blow to the future prospects of the new generation in a country with one of the world’s youngest populations and already struggling with high unemployment and poverty.
The long closure was necessary to protect children and their families as Uganda tried to curb the spread of Covid-19, Janet Museveni, Uganda’s first lady and Minister of Education said in a statement last September.
“We choose to be patient and continue to vaccinate our teachers, learners above 18 years of age and the vulnerable population so that we can be confident enough that we have given some protection to a critical mass of our population,” Museveni said.
There will be a learning curve for students and educators to get back on track, especially for large swathes of students who had to abandon their studies over the last two years out of a lack of resources or supervision for remote learning, Mugimba acknowledged.
Six-year-old learners will automatically be placed in grade one, regardless if they’ve gone through kindergarten or not. Students will also be taught an abridged curriculum with remedial lessons, he said. Under that plan, the hope is that students will be able to catch up in two to three years time.
The school closures, alongside other strict measures to stem the spread of the virus, helped keep the number of Covid-19 deaths low in Uganda. The country has so far recorded around 153,000 cases of Covid-19 and about 3,300 deaths.
But the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF says the shutdown was too long and costly for Uganda’s young.
“Millions of children are at the risk of losing the right to education,” said Munir Safieldin, UNICEF’s Uganda country representative. He cited a state planning authority projection that a third of students would never return to school.
A substantial number of those students will not return to school due to early pregnancy and child labor after having been out of classrooms for so long, especially learners from low-income families or rural areas, said Dr Joseph Muvawala, the executive director of the National Planning Authority (NPA), a government agency. The NPA estimates up to a third of students may not return.
Mugimba refuted that figure as being overinflated, saying it’s “apocalyptic.”
He contends the true number won’t be nearly as high as that, but “every fish you manage to throw back in the water does matter and we do know that problem is there,” Mugimba told CNN.
Rachael’s friend Fridah was not among the crowds of young students flocking back to classes on Monday.
Fridah was Rachael’s age when classes closed. Though she loved biology and chemistry and dreamt of becoming a doctor, she said she “buried” that dream to help support her family by finding a job. Uganda’s strict Covid-19 lockdown pushed many families deeper into poverty as people working odd jobs were left without income.
Now Fridah fears for her future.
“I am worried as a girl. Without being in school I might be tempted to get married,” she said as she waited tables.
“I am here working but I know my friends right now are going back to school or preparing to. That thought sucks the energy out of me. I feel some despair and anger.”
Another 16-year-old in the town of Kayunga, 65 km (40 miles) northeast of the capital Kampala, told Reuters she fell prey to the same temptation while schools were shuttered.
Sara Nakafero said she was bored and stuck at home when she was lured by an older man into a relationship.
Weeks later, her grandmother forced her to take a pregnancy test. She said she spent her pregnancy crying frequently.
The petite teenager now avoids leaving her grandmother’s home with her three-month-old infant Sumin due to prying neighbors. “People stare at me…Whenever I walk around or when I go for immunization, people ask me, ‘Is this child really yours?’,” Nakafero said.
“I feel embarrassed. I feel anger,” she said.
Samson Ntale contributed to this report