What of the children?

Elspeth Dugdale | August 17, 2021

What of the children?
Empty classrooms are too silent

Jody and Dan Unterrheiner live and work in Gulu. They run READ for Life and partner with ServeDirect at Connect Education Centre, Gulu. Throughout the pandemic, they have been a real support at CEC during our absence, while also running RfL, organising radio lessons and constantly rethinking the way forward.


Jody has written about some of the joys and frustrations of education in lockdown:

President Museveni partially lifted lockdown restrictions recently. Whilst this did allow private vehicles to move again and passengers able to use bodas (motorbike taxis)… schools were told to remain closed. Without their usual young 'customers', CEC and RfL cannot operate as normal. Jody writes....

"We currently have a class of eleven children who we are personally teaching every day: neighbourhood homeschool. My mind is completely torn about how I feel about this class and education here right now.
On one hand, I’m so thankful for the opportunity we have to teach our neighbours, and not to boast, but these kids are getting a ‘damn good education’. I’m so proud of them; their reading and writing has grown immensely, particularly for a few of them. We pack a lot into our morning lessons (which sometimes flow into the afternoon) and I can see a lot of progress. And of course, Myron is thriving learning with others, (always a bonus for an extrovert).


On the other hand, the first three years of primary school has been closed for a year and a half, and it is likely that children won’t go back to school until next year. The new guidelines state that schools will remain closed until “a sufficient number of children aged 12 to 18 are vaccinated”. But… where are the vaccines? There are currently NONE in the country. Not a shortage, not an allocation for one age group or industry, but none. A few weeks ago more doses arrived, however they were only allocated for second dose vaccinations and dried up within hours.

And what of the children who are under 12? They are the ones who have not returned to school since lockdown was first announced in March last year. Other year groups have gone back, albeit for not very long, but they have gone back for some learning.

I can only imagine what educational state children will be in when they do finally return to school… whenever that will be. But school not only helps children learn here, it also helps keep children safe. UNICEF has reported many increased cases in Uganda of teenage pregnancy; sexual abuse of children; physical abuse and even one case of murder during school closure. And there is a very real risk that a large proportion of these children may never return to school when they do open again.

We are allowed to have 20 people at social events (wedding, funerals, etc), and public transport can operate at 50%, so why can’t we have 20 children in schools? We already have guidelines and standard operating procedures on how to do this in schools (written by the government). I must be missing something… but I really can’t quite understand why children are not back in school. The children, yet again, are victims and seem to have no voice in this time (or more to the point… overlooked and poorly represented).

In the meantime, my colleagues and I will keep teaching children within our neighbourhoods, we will keep teaching on the radio every day, and we will keep waiting for the vaccinations to come. And no doubt this week we will discuss what more we can do for children still at home…

For those who pray, please pray for vaccines to come (in loaves and fish proportions) and for those making decisions about education in Uganda."

Jody Unterrheiner


Since writing this, there have been some small developments:

  1. A limited number of vaccines have become available in Uganda, so the vaccination programme has begun again, albeit slowly. Those eligible are health workers, teachers & vulnerable over 50s/under 18.
  2. Over 65% of teachers need to be vaccinated for schools to reopen. So far, only 38% have been vaccinated. Many are reluctant and fearful.
  3. The government has now abandoned the idea of vaccinating all secondary students before schools can reopen.
  4. There is still no announcement about nursery or primary children.
Text above from Jody Unterrheiner used with permission. Thank you.