In May, the Elevate team conducted a phone-based survey with 88 primary school head teachers in Mukono District, Uganda about their experiences during the COVID-19 crisis. All primary schools in Uganda were closed on the 18th of March with the goal to re-open 30 days later. Over three months after this initial announcement, schools still have not been opened, and Uganda’s president recently announced that there is no plan to do so in the immediate future.
What this gap in schooling means in in the long-term for student learning outcomes in the country is still very much unknown. However, the results from Elevate’s survey of head teachers can provide a snapshot into what schools are reckoning with during the shutdown and what some of the major challenges will be as schools begin to reopen.
We asked two of Elevate’s staff members who were primarily responsible for conducting the phone surveys to tell us a little about what they learned from their interactions with these head teachers.
Nagawa Christine Ssenyonjo is Elevate’s Community Engagement Program Manager and Emmanuel Odeke is Elevate’s Lead for Monitoring and Evaluation. The interview was conducted by Elevate’s Associate Director for Program Strategy and Evaluation, Diana Winter.
Hello Emma and Christine. I’d love to start by asking you to explain why you think it was important to talk to the head teachers about their experiences.
Christine: Yes. First of all, head teachers are a trustworthy source of relevant, reliable accurate, and timely information and are in touch with both the reality on the ground at the schools and the interventions the districts and national government is implementing in response to COVID-19.
Also, good theoretical ideas that do not take into account the reality on the ground are only good ideas that will not duly serve the purpose for which they are intended. Many community development interventions fail to achieve their intended outcomes because they only sound good but are not workable due to unforeseen circumstances in the target community not being taken into real account in designing the interventions. The head teachers are aware of what is happening at the school and what interventions the government is implementing. They have the management experience to identify the gaps and make relevant suggestions on how to make up for the gaps.
Finally, given the upcoming Presidential elections, it is easy for interventions to be politicized. However, head teachers have an obligation to be non-partisan and steer away from political affiliations. This makes them a preferred source of grassroots information
Emma: I agree with Christine. Head teachers are a great source of information regarding education in their school communities. They are knowledgeable in matters concerning education in their communities. They are also the lead administrators — it’s always right to observe protocol regarding information on their schools. They hold the powers.
I also think that most communities have trust in head teachers, so they are more open in talking about matters affecting education in their communities because they are connected to the people.
And in general, how did the head teachers feel about taking part in this survey?
Emma: They felt recognized and honored in taking part in the discussion. They felt most times they never get a chance to air out their views especially in a situation like this where every opinion matters.
Christine: Most of the head teachers were very cooperative and willingly participated in the survey. A couple of them mentioned that they would love to receive copies of the outcomes of the research particularly the strategies for schools re-opening post COVID-19. They were appreciative of the efforts to gather such information given the tough times and hoped that the Ministry takes into account some of their concerns and suggestions.
Christine, as you just mentioned, the survey asked teachers to share some of their concerns and suggestions for how to approach the COVID-19 crisis at the school level. Were there any responses that surprised you during the survey? Why were they surprising?
Christine: Head teachers have an overwhelmingly strong sense of responsibility for the children enrolled in their school and they have a wealth of knowledge and experience that is widely left untapped. They had many suggestions that would not otherwise come obviously to a person who is not in touch with the education system on the ground. There is a wealth of knowledge and brilliant ideas that would go untapped if the head teachers were not consulted.
Contrary to the general perception that teachers are on holiday, they are to a large extent not. Many of the teachers I spoke to were constantly looking out for ways to engage their learners, parents, and teachers to facilitate the continuation of learning by any means.
Also, it is a common occurrence for teachers to work very far away from where their families are. Many teachers leave their family homes to rent in places near the school to be able to keep up with the demands of the job. I was surprised that depending on where they were at the time the lockdown was declared, some were stuck at the school’s premises away from the rest of their families while others are with their families away from the school and concerned about not being able to check in on the school premises and their school community.
Emma: I was surprised when a head teacher told me he received a phone call from a parent asking for clarity on questions in the packets they sent home for students to study. The head teacher himself was surprised by the call. This parent lives about 10 kilometers from school. I was surprised as well, having visited the school community before where a majority of parents prefer pupils to work with them in the tea industry even during class times.
I was also surprised that some head teachers insist that COVID-19 is just a made-up scheme to fleece people. They say COVID isn’t real and they are just acting to fulfill government demands.
That’s very interesting! So what do you think head teachers most concerned about right now?
Emma: They are concerned about how to implement the COVID-19 guidelines provided by the government. They are worried it will be very difficult to implement the measures set by the government since it’s even visible in their community that the measures not being observed. They are also worried that the school facilities can’t accommodate those measures. For example, social distancing will be hard when there are so many students in one classroom.
Also, the majority are concerned with the completion of the P7 syllabus and their candidates passing the PLE (Primary Living Examination) final exams. And many are worried about the other pupils falling behind in education since most of them haven’t engaged in revision for two months now.
Christine: The cost of making their schools COVID-19 safe is very high which makes it a daunting endeavor for them. A number of costs were mentioned by several head teachers including but not limited to; the cost of installing handwashing stations with both soap and water; to cost to clear the potentially increased water bills from the increased volumes of water used for handwashing; the cost of securing or constructing temporary structures to avail a sufficient number of rooms to maintain social distancing among the learners; the cost and management of screening for COVID-19 cases for day schools which have pupils move back and forth daily from the school and their community, the cost of maintaining a lower teacher to student ratio in the event only candidate classes report to the school since subject teachers will be teaching fewer lessons per week.
School also provides a safe-haven for girls. With schools closed, some head teachers are concerned that learners are more at risk of getting unwanted pregnancies.
They are also concerned with being able to make up for time lost while the schools were closed. Having to re-teach school habits to the children after being away from school for extended periods is also difficult. They were concerned that children would have lost touch with things like timekeeping, basic literacy, rules of social engagement, and the like due to the extended periods of time without practice.
Did either of you see any examples of “innovation” coming from the communities in response to these concerns? Do any stories stand out in particular?
Christine: Yes. This one stands out for me – one head teacher, who is also a zonal leader, has organized the head teachers, teachers, and parents in his zone into respective WhatsApp groups to disseminate the necessary materials to them and provide the support each of the groups require to facilitate the continuation of learning respectively.
Emma : Yes, also one head teacher I spoke to mobilized the PTA teachers who live within the community to reach out to P7 candidates in their households to help them in revision while observing the COVID-19 prevention guidelines. Another school utilized the two days ultimatum given to them by the government to close the school for all (pupils, teachers) to engage in planting food for next term. Currently, the foods are flourishing in the gardens.
Some schools also sent past revision papers to pupils within reach and head teachers together with teachers organized a few clusters of pupils who meet at a centralized area and hold some revisions while observing the COVID-19 prevention measures under the close supervision of the area LC1.
To close out, what do you think is the most important message or lesson that you took away from your conversations with head teachers?
Emma: There is a need to bridge the communication gap between the district education office and head teachers while they, the head teachers, are at home. During the conversations, I realized head teachers end up receiving educational information through third parties which in most cases is not accurate – like re-opening of schools, some have already believed information from third-party that schools will be reopened in 2021. Hence some head teachers are relaxing and focusing on other non-school activities.
I also think it is important that head teachers should be consulted on educational matters affecting the community. They hold some good ideas on how the government should have responded to the education situation, such as involving them in the distribution of the learning materials rather than the local politicians who take matters personally especially if you didn’t vote for them.
Christine: Head teachers want to make this work. Each head teacher I spoke to seemed to have yet another valid concern and yet another brilliant suggestion on how to respond to COVID-19. This made me appreciate that the problem at hand is multifaceted and thus requires to be approached with a wide array of perspectives in order for us in the education realm to put our best foot forward. All these voices matter. We must listen to all the voices speaking up to make the best resolution moving forward. Slow but sure wins the race.