Math, Math and — Hours Later — Still More Math

As the pandemic batters their finances, private schools cut teachers and put students through marathon classes.

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Math, Math and — Hours Later — Still More Math

Apophia Agiresaasi, GPJ Uganda

Students attend class at Platinum High School in Uganda’s Mayuge district before the recent lockdown.

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KAMPALA, UGANDA — On a typical Monday this April, Aidah Nankwanzi started school at 8 a.m. Her teacher launched into a math lesson. Hours later, the same teacher was still teaching the same types of equations. Aidah, 15, found it nearly impossible to concentrate. She noticed classmates nodding off. School ended at 5:30 p.m. Besides lunch and bathroom breaks, she had been in math class the entire time.

When Aidah returned to the classroom last year after months of pandemic closures, her private school in Kampala, the nation’s capital, had transformed. It wasn’t just the face masks or the socially distanced desks; it was how she and her classmates were taught.

Her financially strapped school lost two-thirds of its teachers and, as a result, rejiggered its schedule. Before the pandemic, students switched subjects every two hours, she says. Now, one teacher reviewed one subject all day long. “I feel this might affect us when it comes to final exams,” Aidah says one night, hunched over her math textbook, face pinched in anxiety.

More than half of secondary schools and about 40% of primary schools in Uganda are private, meaning that education is as much a business as a public good. The coronavirus pandemic revealed the perils of that approach.

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Apophia Agiresaasi, GPJ Uganda

In a school schedule that Ugandan government officials deem acceptable, children change subjects frequently. But because of pandemic budget cuts, some schools had one instructor teach one subject to the same students all day.

Many schools are individual- or family-owned and rely on high-interest loans to keep their doors open, says Patrick Kaboyo, general secretary of the Federation of Non State Education Institutions, which represents private schools. When schools closed during a nationwide lockdown in 2020, they stopped collecting tuition but remained on the hook for loan payments, plus building upkeep and security.

At least 50 schools shut down, mostly in rural areas, Kaboyo says. Those that reopened in October 2020 did so in phases and therefore had fewer students paying fees. Many laid off teachers, and their remaining instructors often crammed five days of learning into two or three, with their salaries cut accordingly.

This June, Uganda shuttered schools again as part of a lockdown. President Yoweri Museveni recently announced they won’t reopen until January. “It will make the bad situation worse, but we have no choice,” says Filbert Baguma, general secretary of the Uganda National Teachers’ Union.

Many private institutions will likely resume operations with skeleton staffing and marathon classes. Under such conditions, says education analyst Jonathan Kivumbi, it’s hard for students to absorb material. “It’s marathon talking to students, not marathon teaching,” he says. “This is madness.”

Uganda’s Ministry of Education and Sports issued guidelines last year regarding post-lockdown learning. Marathon classes were not acceptable, says spokesman Patrick Muinda. “In the course of recovering time lost during the COVID-19 lockdown, students should not be victimized,” he says.

“It’s marathon talking to students, not marathon teaching.”education analyst

Private schools face dire arithmetic. They’ve asked the government for a bailout, but Apollo Munghinda, a Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development spokesperson, says there isn’t enough money to help every business the pandemic battered. Some schools can apply for general small-business assistance, though, and government officials are in talks with banks about the possibility of extending school loans.

When Uganda welcomed private schools in the 1990s, supporters billed them as augmenting the public system. But as they multiplied, the government disinvested in public education, according to a report by the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights, a nongovernmental organization in Kampala, and the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, an international nongovernmental organization focused on human rights.

The pitfalls were quickly apparent. According to the 2015 report, families strained to afford tuition, let alone uniforms, books and, in some cases, toilet paper. If students couldn’t pay, they often had to drop out.

During the pandemic, private school closures and family job losses have led to some students re-enrolling in public schools. And the remaining private school students, like Aidah, returned to classrooms in disarray.

Platinum High School serves 500 students in rural Mayuge district, east of Kampala. When classes restarted in phases in 2020, only 1 in 5 students were allowed to return, says dean of studies Zaidi Kiboko. The school let some teachers go; to pay the rest, the owner dipped into funds from his real estate business.

Widely considered underpaid before the pandemic, private school teachers make, at minimum, 300,000 Ugandan shillings ($85) a month at rural schools and 400,000 ($113) at urban ones, Kaboyo says. During pandemic closures, they make nothing.

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Upon reopening in 2020, Hope Community High School cut teacher salaries in half, says headmistress Florence Dara. The 400-student school is in Jinja district, east of the capital. Many teachers picked up second jobs, from driving boda bodas, or motorcycle taxis, to making bricks. “So teachers don’t give as much time to students to ask questions or consult them as they used to when they were at school all the time,” she says.

Teacher James Karachi worked full time at a high school until officials halved his pay. The 33-year-old panicked. “I have a family to provide for. I have to pay school fees for my children,” he says. So Karachi picked up classes at a second school. Both allowed him to work two days a week. Before the 2021 lockdown, he spent each day teaching geography to a single group of students.

“Of course it’s tiresome, even for us teachers,” he says. “But we don’t have many options since schools cannot afford to keep us in school all the five days a week.”

President Museveni announced last year a fund of 22 billion shillings (about $6.2 million) to help cash-strapped teachers. Baguma, the teachers’ union general secretary, says no rules have been finalized for how to distribute the money, so private school teachers have yet to receive aid. “The government should fast-track the money,” he says.

Meanwhile, parents are panicking. Joseph, who asked that his last name not be used because he fears retaliation, is a 53-year-old researcher in Masaka district, southwest of the capital, and the father of three school-age children. In April, his teenage daughters were stranded in marathon English and math classes.

Furious, he called their school, but he says officials denied it. “What student can concentrate in the same subject for seven hours?” he says, worried that his girls will fall behind.

Apophia Agiresaasi is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kampala, Uganda. She specializes in reporting on health and politics.