How effective are COVID-19 education response strategies in rural communities? A case study of Uganda’s TV and Radio Learning Program.
Coronavirus took the world by surprise
I remember that excitement of spending the new year in the skies aboard Ethiopian Airlines flight ET685 from Shanghai Pudong International Airport in China bound for Entebbe International Airport in Uganda on Jan 1, 2020. I thought that was just an inaugural flight and a unique travel experience to start the new year. Although I was full of hopes, I had no idea what shape the new year would take. With study, travel, and work plans all laid down for the new year, I imagined 2020 to be a prosperous year in which my dream to get a new car, enroll in a PhD program and see great things would come true.
However, it happened so quick that in less than two months, the busy Pudong airport became a vacuum with no more sounds of aircraft taking off or landing and all those busy escalators came to a standstill. It all started in Wuhan, an eastern Chinese city, where a strange coronavirus that causes the disease identified as COVID-19. From seemingly isolated cases, the virus quickly spread across China and across the world, prompting the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare it a global pandemic on February 11,2020.
As of July 17, 2020, the virus has infected at least 13,666,118 people and claimed the lives of more than 586,369 globally (John Hopkins University and Medicine, 2020). On the same date, the US, also by far the worst hit by the pandemic, has registered 3,695,581 infections and 138,040 deaths, representing about 23.5% of the total deaths registered globally.
Many sectors are at risk from COVID-19
Although most analysts focus more on the economic impacts of the virus spread, almost every sector is hit hard. Stock markets are crashing and the global economy has entered a new recession (probably the same or worse) than what we experienced about a decade ago. The social and political spectrums of the society are equally affected. The virus is now touching a very controversial sector, the political sector and could comprise the rights of citizens to vote or fully participate in electoral processes. Globally, more than 60 elections have been postponed since the spread of COVID-19 intensified in March (IFES, 2020).
The retail business, transportation, tourism, and of course, the public health sectors are just some of the sectors badly hit by the virus. Actually, the world is bracing for a $5.8 trillion loss in the next two years, while at least 34.3 million people would fall into the extreme poverty trap ( (UN, 2020).
The outbreak of the deadly pandemic and its spread across continents attracted mixed reactions and responses from governments, civil society, the private sector and the general public. However, in most countries, lockdown and curfew measures were imposed in a bid to flatten the infection curve.
The global education sector and COVID-19
Worldwide, since January 22 when the first few hundreds of COVID-19 cases were registered, universities, tertiary institutions, high schools and elementary schools had to take actions and two months into the spread of COVID-19, mandated school closures were effected in at least 192 countries, affecting almost 2 billion learners- the largest by far compared to past disasters ( (ILO, 2020).
This closure is not a new phenomenon, but what is startling is the scale of the effect. Previous disruptions in the education sector due to natural calamities did not affect every part of the world. As a result, the risk that many school teachers could lose their jobs is very clear, while students now lag behind school syllabi and fall behind in learning.
The outbreak and spread of coronavirus in the education sector has led to various measures, with the widespread one currently being virtual and distance learning. In communities where technology (internet infrastructure) and other skills are underdeveloped, radio and TV programs have been designed as a means of keeping teaching and learning going during this turbulent time and Uganda is a case in point.
Uganda’s response to the COVID-19 education need: What is working and what is not?
The country was quick to close its borders even before the first domestic case was registered on March 22. Since then, there have now been 1051 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country, both citizens and noncitizens but no deaths yet. The country’s President, Yoweri Museveni Kaguta, announced, in a national address on March 18, the indefinite closure of all schools and worship places. Schools remain closed to date and no reopening plans have been disclosed yet.
The Ministry of Education and Sports (MoES) rolled out the Preparedness and Response Plan (PRP) as a response strategy to save the sector during and after COVID-19, mainly focusing on learning continuation and what next for the education sector once the economy reopened. Two learning strategies, TV and radio programs, have since been implemented to help advance the main goal of continuing education.
TV and Radio Learning in Uganda
Scheduled at specific dates and times, the few local television and radio channels have had to shift their programs lately to accommodate virtual learning. However, the rural communities that do not have reliable access to such electronic equipment and mass media service have been left out. It is upon this background that the government proposed to distribute 10 million radio receiver sets to serve some 15 million learners, while the distribution of another 137,466 solar-powered television sets has also been put forward by legislators (Daily Monitor, 2020).
The disadvantage the present strategy presents to underprivileged communities is manifold, one of which is widening the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” in terms of access to such learning equipment and services. The government’s plan to set aside funds for the procurement and disbursement of electronic equipment sounds great, but its sustainability remains questionable.
Even when the government avails radios and television sets, are the learners tech-friendly? We are talking about an innovation that was never tried in Uganda before. Moreover, learners tend to be more productive during their early ages and find it problematic to grasp and adapt to new challenges.
Lessons for the education sector from the COVID-19 experience
Like almost all sectors, the global education sector was caught unprepared by the coronavirus virus and most interventions to keep it in shape were on an ad hoc foundation. The pandemic should be looked at by educators and policymakers as an opportunity to scan the sector’s capabilities, make considerable changes to the department and learn best practices in emergencies (World Bank, 2020).
While developing countries like Uganda were quick to act when coronavirus first broke out, they have imposed various measures to counter the impacts of the coronavirus without thoroughly studying the circumstances surrounding the pandemic. When the Ugandan government announced that they would move classes to TVs and radios, they had not done any prior research. Not long after then the parliament proposes distribution of TVs and radios, still, without studying the needs of the country.
Persons with disabilities (PWDs), students from rural and economically poor communities have especially, been left out of the new government strategy to keep the education sector alive and going. Such categories of people were either completely left out or less covered by the emergency plan. Since its inception, many parents and other development partners have questioned the effectiveness of the current MoES teaching and learning approach (The Independent, 2020). It, therefore, comes without surprise that many feel that the ministry’s response strategy is less effective and only widens the gap between children of the rich and poor families.
Governments and education ministries have been grappling with how to better tackle the COVID-19 nightmare in the education sector which exposed a number of vulnerabilities in the current system. As the entire world was overwhelmed by the pandemic, there was little room for countries to help each other. Moreover, the virus characteristics were new and no country had experience with it. It was also an opportunity to innovate and benchmark. They made several attempts to keep things running on an ad hoc basis. However, policymakers should spend as much time as possible researching before unveiling response strategies—data-driven decision-making approach. Inclusion, cost-effectiveness, and public acceptance is crucial for the success of any ideal COVID-19 education response methodology.
Daily Monitor. (2020, June 15). Daily Monitor. Retrieved from National News: https://www.monitor.co.ug/News/National/Cabinet-rejects-dead-year-opts-buy-10m-radio-sets-/688334-5576754-ary0pkz/index.html
IFES. (2020, July 15). International Foundation for Electoral Systems. Retrieved from IFES website : https://www.ifes.org/sites/default/files/elections_postponed_due_to_covid-19.pdf
ILO. (2020). COVID-19 and the education sector. Geneva: ILO.
John Hopkins University and Medicine. (2020, July 17). Coronavirus Resource Center. Retrieved from John Hopkins University and Medicine Official Website: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html
The Independent. (2020, April 22). Latest News. Retrieved from The Independent website: https://www.independent.co.ug/the-art-of-teaching-can-children-effectively-learn-through-radio-and-tv/
UN. (2020, May 13). Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Retrieved from UN Website : https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/policy/wesp-mid-2020-report.html
World Bank. (2020, June 22). Education and technology . Retrieved from World Bank : https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/edutech/brief/lessons-for-education-during-covid-19-crisis
****This article is the original work of Kectil Youth Mentor Joel Odota.
Joel ODOTA holds a master’s degree (with thesis) in Politics and International Relations from the Yenching Academy of Peking University, Beijing where he became a Teaching Assistant from September 2018 to June 2019 and was recognized as the Academy’s best Teaching Assistant of the 2018-2019 academic year. Joel has been working as a UN Online Volunteer since 2016 at The Energy Globe (Austria) and now Universal Versatile Society (UVS), India. He is presently an editor for the UVS’s Weekly Climate Change News (WCCN) project, and columnist at the Northern Uganda News Wire. He a professional teacher with a Bachelor of Arts in Education degree from Makerere University, Uganda. Joel is a 2018-2019 trainee at the Malmar Knowles Family Foundation’s year-long leadership program Kectil and is a Senior Fellow and youth mentor at the same foundation for the East African Regional Group comprising seven African countries. Joel has been an extraordinary help to The Kectil Program by providing an open and interactive platform for Colleagues under his group.
Joel was a trainee at the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) of the US Department of State from May 2016- August 2016 in Nairobi, Kenya and is an active alumnus of the Uganda chapter. He also underwent the month-long BAIXIAN Asia Institute Leadership Development Program in August 2018. Joel has a track record of volunteer and full-time work experience for non-profit organizations in various departments ranging from education to health to livelihoods and capacity building.