The COVID-19 pandemic brought uncertainty, anxiety and tension as the number of infections kept rising. With schools closed, parents in Arua, a city in the West Nile region of Uganda, started to wonder what would become of their children, and the teachers of their careers. Eventually, home learning guidelines for primary and secondary schools were issued, but Early Childhood Development (ECD) centres were still waiting.
With all 3-6 year old children stuck at home – and most parents lacking the appropriate knowledge, skills or time to support them to continue learning – the children had plenty of time to play with peers, but the play was often unsupervised. The Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) decided, as part of the Aga Khan Development Network’s (AKDN) COVID-19 response interventions, to support ECD through its Madrasa Programme and so address these challenges.
The response features radio lessons and talk shows that provide an opportunity for children to learn, and enables parents and guardians to develop skills on how to effectively support distance learning. These radio programmes have been especially beneficial to parents like Zakia, who had to ask her older children to support their 5-year-old sister, Shamsa, since Zakia herself is unable to read or write. She also tuned in to the 9am Saturday radio shows for her daughter to listen to. This multichannel approach was able to be more inclusive as it was offered in two languages (English and Lugubarati) to cater for the diverse refugee hosting community in Arua. Another parent, Dramadri Abdu Noor, shared that he has listened to more than seven lessons and was so pleased with them that he called in to give feedback: “My son has continued to learn a lot from the radio lessons we listen to every Saturday.”
In addition to radio, home learning packages were designed and distributed to 50 ECD centres across Arua. The packages were then distributed to parents so they could support children to continue learning. To ensure the children were being well-supported, teachers from each Centre conducted follow-up calls to all the parents who received the packages. This enabled the team to identify the challenges parents were facing and provide timely solutions, as well as keep the teacher’s employed and occupied.
The intervention filled the gap for schools like Sacred Heart Nursery Schools who – according to the Head Teacher Onama Primo – did not have enough resources to support the parents. Thanks to the home learning packages and with AKF support, they managed to reach 72 families with 200 packages. Parents are now asking for more, and other parents in the community are using the packages to make copies for their children as well.
Beyond the children’s continued learning, the programme has had an even wider impact since the teachers also benefited. With schools closed, teachers were temporarily unemployed, but this intervention gave teachers the chance to participate in preparing the home learning packages and scripts for the weekly radio lessons – and earn some allowances for their work.
Oriku Damazu, a caregiver at Sacred Hearts Nursery School shared how dire his situation was after schools closed: He was not receiving a salary and had no savings to fall back on. But when he was engaged in preparing the home packages for the children and radio scripts for the weekly radio lessons, he was able to earn some income and stay afloat: “Getting involved in this Madrasa Early Childhood programme and Aga Khan Foundation’s initiative has made me a more respected person in the community because people hear me on the radio. I have become a go-to person as many parents call me to support them.”
Local government officials have appreciated the impact of the COVID-19 response programme, as highlighted by Ronald Drani, Senior Education Officer, Arua Municipality, who said: “With the COVID impasse not abating, the district received a number of partners who sought to support the education needs of the children during the school closures but all of them had programmes concentrating on primary and upper classes. This left the ECD section unattended. As a community and municipality, the intervention renewed our hope, we are grateful to Madrasa Early Childhood programme and the Aga Khan Foundation for the support because it was timely and has filled the learning gap during the school closures.”
Thanks to this timely support, more than 3,000 children (two-thirds girls) were able to continue learning even during the lockdown, teachers acquired skills in facilitating lessons outside of the classroom and parents discovered new ways to support their children’s learning.
This work is being implemented under the Foundations for Education and Empowerment (F4EE) project funded by Global Affairs Canada and the Aga Khan Foundation.