Opinion by Jimmy Odoki Acellam
Are international schools above the COVID-19 presidential directives and Ugandan laws?
The coronavirus pandemic that began from Wuhan in China has caused global disruptions like never before. At a current global infection of 4088848 _ and deaths at 283153 (WHO figures as on 12th, May 2020)_ many countries around the world have had to implement lockdowns and quarantine for passengers /travelers arriving in different countries, isolated and administered treatment for people who tested positive or showed signs of Coronavirus infection mainly through screening for high temperatures and cough.
In Uganda, drastic actions such as the closure of institutions of learning and places of worship had to be taken by the president. There is no doubt it helped a great deal in stopping transmission in a country whose health system is very fragile.
In the United States, the UK many universities had to change the mode of learning from face to face to online classes and learning which they easily embraced due to their advanced IT infrastructure.
How are students in Uganda coping with the new reality?
Uganda Christian University was the first notable institution to ask the government to allow it to conduct online assessment and examination of their students. It was flatly rejected by the Parliament of Uganda. Why then, do other international schools continue to conduct online classes while putting pressure on their parents to pay as though it is business as usual in these COVID-19 times?
On 5th May, 2020 Mr. Anthony Eysele, the Chief Executive Officer of the Aga Khan Education Service wrote to parents and guardians of AKESU schools acknowledging the difficulties, stresses that both parents and their students are going through in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. However, his emphasis was a payment of third term school fees which he alleged was discounted by ten percent. One wonders why the rush to commence the third term in light of the fact that the government of Uganda ordered all schools to close at a time when international schools, the Aga Khan School inclusive were yet to write the end of term examination for the second term. It is shocking that times like what we are experiencing, a school should be merely concerned about tuition fees, despite the Ministry of Education directive to schools not to coerce parents for school fees payment; to ensure that schools complete the previous term and ensure there is coverage of the set syllabus.
In the US, students are protesting that they didn’t sign up for online lectures and therefore the charges can’t be the same as face to face learning. The CEO should therefore reconsider some of their decisions well knowing what we are dealing with is unprecedented and analysis of online classes given our facilities compared to classroom face to face type leaves a lot of questions on the amount parents are being asked to pay.
According to the headteacher, Elementary Section of the Aga Khan School, Emmanuel Ndoori in his communication on 8th, May, 2020 parents and guardians were given a discount of 10% on tuition term 3, Y1- Y2 pay 3,533,355 instead of 3,925,950 while Y3-Y6 now pay 4,479,300 instead of 4,977,700 for classes that are conducted through zoom. While on the surface it appears a good gesture but a deeper analysis will reveal that this is not fair to both parents, guardians who have to pay near full pay for one or two 30 – 40-minute lessons a day via zoom; and the students. This is because in a normal school term students spend 8 hours at school and have access to an array of facilities ranging from science and computer laboratories, sports gym, music room, learning support services for students who are lagging behind and face to face contact with the teachers and students can interact with their teachers as deemed necessary. The first four weeks of implementing the online teaching programme already showed glaring gaps in the delivery of education services. First, lower elementary had classes on free zoom for maximum forty minutes a week and only this week was it increased to eighty minutes per day, and classes are often interrupted by poor internet connection for the teachers delivering the classes. Secondly, a review of the videos being used to facilitate these classes showed that they are videos publicly available on YouTube thus, in essence, there is no serious investment on the online classes to justify payment of 90 percent tuition to the school. Last but not least the conduct of online classes could perpetuate inequalities between children as it is undisputed that six, seven, eight-year-olds in year one to three need adult supervision to be able to participate in the classes. Needless to say, the programme does not recognize the unique circumstances of parents who are essential workers such as health workers who are still required to report to work daily. Most Importantly is the question of who regulates the delivery of online education services?
When the Ugandan Parliament stopped Uganda Christian University from conducting online examination, it was clear that no educational institution in Uganda was above the pronouncement. The fact that parents of students in international schools accepted the informal program so as to keep their children busy doesn’t call for payment of the usual face to face classes. Schools have to be considerate to parents in this hard economic times.
Accordingly online digital class began on 20th April, 2020. On 16th April the headteacher at Aga Khan high school, Kampala, Mr. Michael Musaazi wrote to parents about term 3 start date of outmost importance is the reassurance from Christine Ozden, the chief executive, Cambridge Assessment international education that a decision was taken on 23rd March 2020 not to run international examinations in May/ June 2020 series.
However, students will receive a grade and certificate from Cambridge assessment international education so that they do not face a disadvantage because of the extraordinary circumstances. This, therefore, should enable the school to drop tuition by more than half given that in addition to certificate reassurance the frequency of classes is reduced exponentially.
In a communication to parents, teachers at Kampala International School of Uganda KS2 wrote explaining their displeasure that as of May, their April salaries hadn’t been paid and they received a notification that there would be a 37.5% reduction on their April pay with no previous notice considering the challenges we face due to the coronavirus pandemic, school ought to be kind to their staff and students as well as parents considering that they are going through similar financial challenges.
Considering the presidential directives and the Ministry of Education guidelines for all schools and tertiary institutions, and what is happening in international schools, one wonders if international schools are regulated and accountable to the Ministry of Education? Or should it be taken that they operate outside the laws that govern this country hence their failure to abide by the guidelines set! One would imagine that international schools should be subject to the regulations of the different examination bodies such as Cambridge and the Ugandan law since they provide education services within the territory of the Republic of Uganda. Perhaps all these are indicators that the government of Uganda through the Ministry of Education and Sports should keenly regulate the international schools within the confines of the Education Act of 2008 and other laws and more recently the Covid 19 Presidential Directives. In the absence of regulation of international schools lawsuits such as the one where parents sued the Aga Khan Education Services for non-compliance with mandatory requirements of the Education Act are unavoidable.
Jimmy Odoki Acellam has interests in Education matters and Mental Health Advocacy