Rwanda is planning a gradual nationwide reopening of schools over the next few months as it emerges from effects of the Covid-19 pandemic that has disrupted economic activities since mid March.
The reopening recently approved by the Cabinet will see higher learning institutions take the lead, but only with students in their final year.
The others will wait for another date to be communicated depending on the success of efforts to control the pandemic, according to the Ministry of Education.
The National University of Rwanda will resume its operations in mid October, said Minister of Education, Dr Valentine Uwamariya.
Several other universities have been allowed to begin operations immediately – The University of Global Health Equity, African Leadership University, AIMS, Carnegie Melon University, and Oklahoma Christian University.
“Plans to reopen schools have been ongoing. They include building more classrooms to enable social distancing and improving hygiene,” Dr Uwamariya said at a press conference on Friday.
The Ministry of Education also announced that universities and tertiary institutions that are cleared for reopening will do so mid-October, with students in their final academic year.
Secondary schools under the national programme will resume physical classes in November while those that are under international programmes will do so in October.
“All learning institutions are required to have two isolation rooms where students and staff suspected of having Covid-19 can be isolated in order to curb the spread of the virus,” Dr Uwamariya said.
Academies may not join the phased reopening until authorities are satisfied with their levels of preparedness to keep children safe.
This is based on a set of safety protocols including social distancing, adequate sanitation facilities and temperature screening, that are assessed jointly by health and education ministry teams.
The education regulator is expected to release the school calendar with adjustments to reflect the new normal.
“We are embarking on learning under unusual circumstances as it will be in shifts to ensure social distancing. We are working on the calendar which shall be different based on levels of study and courses,” Minister Valentine Uwamariya said.
Compliance with social distancing and other COVID-19 safety protocols has imposed a huge cost on schools as most have had to expand or put up new infrastructure facilities to ensure directives around spacing and regular handwashing are complied with.
Schools also need resources to operationalize regular temperature checks and disinfection of buildings, as well as bringing on board trained staff to enforce safety rules.
While financial constraints are expected to derail the reopening of schools without ready budgets, public schools and those aided by the government are banking on the massive classroom expansion project by the World Bank.
It is expected to deliver a total of 22,505 new classrooms for primary, secondary and nursery levels.
The Education Ministry says the new facilities could help solve the spacing issue in addition to handling the expected spike in enrollment rates as the prolonged closure of learning institutions hampered class progression to create room in elementary levels nationwide.
The government also plans to allocate $9.7 million for select activities in line with the sector’s Covid-19 response plan.
These include learning continuity, tracking student progress and ensuring the health and safety of students and teachers on return to schools.
A chunk of the funds will also be allocated to protecting vulnerable groups of students like girls, children with disabilities and those from low-income households from compounded negative impacts of the pandemic.
Unlike public learning institutions that depend on the State funding, private academies, already hit hard by the pandemic-induced closure, are finding the going tough as most had tuition fees as their main source of funding.
Still, some face a risk of remaining shut in case they fail to comply with the safety protocols.
“We have no option. We must comply if we have to remain in business. I don’t know about others but we did the best we could,” said Dr Fabien Hagenimana, Vice Chancellor of INES-Ruhengeri, a private higher learning institution based in Musanze town.
“A team from the ministries of education and health has been visiting institutions and producing reports which were sent back with areas it felt needed improvement, but it did not indicate whether or not we qualify to reopen. For now we can’t tell if there is going to be prior clearance when the reopening date is announced,” he said.
Pie Sebakiga, who heads a Kigali-based private TVET college said the effects of the prolonged school closure are expected to haunt operations for a long time especially in instances where owners are not ready to inject more investments
The closure saw many suspend staff contracts, slash salaries or effect layoffs.
Attempts by some institutions to take their operations online were unsuccessful after the education regulator in May found the process marred by lack of ICT tools and internet connectivity for the majority of students and some staff.
The Education ministry has since ruled out online teaching as an alternative so institutions will not be allowed to tuition fees for the same.
The government has also been offering free learning opportunities for students at home through the national television and radio channels as well as online platforms.
Educationists say remedial classes would help learners from vulnerable families to catch up with the others and that in some instances, institutions will have to entirely repeat all courses taught online during the Covid-19 lockdown.