The Ministry of Education has halted the requirement by schools for learners to undergo mandatory COVID-19 testing before being allowed to access schools as education institutions reopen next week.
With the surge in COVID-19 cases registered in the country, managers of several boarding schools especially in the Kampala Metropolitan Area asked parents to ensure that learners appear with negative PCR test results taken at least 72 hours before reporting day. Others informed parents that the test would be carried out by pre-positioned private laboratories upon arrival.
But after public outcry, the Director-General of Health Services Dr Henry Mwebesa, wrote to the education ministry asking them to instruct schools to desist from the practise since it is not part of the national school reopening requirements.
“The national COVID-19 task force guidelines for reopening of schools, jointly developed by the MOES (Ministry of education and sports) and MOH (Ministry of Health), provides specific guidance on how learners will safely return to schools. testing learners on arrival was not one of the recommendations,” Dr Mwebesa noted in his January 6 letter to the Ministry of Education Permanent Secretary.
Dr Mwebesa noted that schools were required to put in place a system for strict compliance to COVID-19 Standard Operating Procedures and strengthening surveillance systems.
“With guidance from the health ministry, the authorities at the Ministry of Education have outlawed mandatory COVID-19 tests for learners,” Hajj Ismael Mulindwa, the Director of Basic Education, who described the act as madness from schools noted, saying that any school that will insist on forcing it on students will be penalized.
Mulindwa says many schools are using the tests to increase the burden of returning learners to school given the fact that parents are already financially stressed but schools keep on creating excuses to get money out of them. He cited that their investigation has found out that many schools which have imposed mandatory COVID-19 tests are charging fees that are way higher than those charged by laboratories. The director also notes that some schools have reportedly contracted private service providers which are not accredited to carry out PCR tests.
But Alex Mutaawe, a parent and resident of Kamwokya, fears that although the ministry has halted the mandatory testing of learners imposed by schools, it may still go on and the same ministry will do nothing. “The ministry cannot enforce what they are saying. School managers are demi-gods and whatever they say, parents will do it even if it is affecting us. The Ministry will not come to anyone’s rescue. Why? because the majority of schools which impose such things are owned by authorities in the ministry,” says Mutaawe.
Already a cross-section of parents has been questioning the relevance of testing for COVID-19 arguing that testing learners might not have any effect since it does not guarantee that a learner will remain safe for the rest of the term.
This kind of argument is based on the fact that before the second school closure many top schools had required parents to test learners who had reported back to school in the staggered system. But, after a few days when everyone had settled in what could have been a bubble, hundreds of learners from those very schools tested positive for the virus creating a national crisis.
However, Dr Elizabeth Ekirapa-Kiracho, a Senior Lecturer and Head of Health Policy Planning and Management Department at Makerere University, has a divergent view on the issue. She notes that if testing wasn’t expensive, it would have been one of the best things to do before schools reopen.
She says that without testing, infected learners are going to spread the virus to others which might create COVID-19 surges in school. She however says that the only limitation to this initiative is the fact that testing is not accessible due to the high fees charged.