After 7 months of abrupt school closure country-wide, the country of Uganda allowed schools to reopen on Thursday 15 October.
And by reopen, we mean, only the "candidate classes" preparing for national graduation exams: Primary 7 (PLE Primary Leaving Exam), Senior 4 (O-Level or UCE Uganda Certificate of Education equivalent to grade 11 in USA, almost high school), and Senior 6 (A-Level or UACE Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education equivalent to a tad beyond high school, maybe a year of community college), plus final-year University students. For our team in Bundibugyo, that was big news. While we work holistically in church planting, Bible translation, education, clean water and sanitation, nutrition, health, literacy, sports, youth outreach . . .the single institution for which we are responsible soup to nuts is Christ School Bundibugyo. 6 grades of O and A level, 350+ students, and perhaps the most significant and lasting impact over the last twenty years.
On March 20, we had to send all our students home, only half-way through first term (Ugandan school years are calendar years). For the first couple of months, we lived in limbo of expecting imminent resumption of normalcy. Our staff put together packets of study materials that went out to students, and participated in some radio-show teaching organised eventually by the government, and even a pilot program to use What's App for the Senior 6 students to try online learning. But in a place with intermittent electricity, almost zero personal computer ownership, little capacity to buy internet data, with about 2/3 of households having a cell phone but few of those with internet capability . . well, online learning was pretty much impossible. As month after month passed, we all felt the sorrow of how places of poverty fall further and further behind. Even a pandemic does not level the world in effects: the people who live in low-resource places still suffer the effects disproportionately.
As the lock-down dragged on, Patrick (our Director of Development) and Mike (pastor) began a program of staff development. Taking advantage of the space to invest in staff without the pressure of students, they worked several days a week to teach teachers how to improve their teaching, and to mentor them through Gospel studies. While we mourned the delay in school opening, we do see the beauty of that time. Patrick and Mike had barely begun their terms when COVID hit, and this gave them lots of time to build trust and relationship with staff. Ann joined in too. What was definitely evil in this world God enabled us to turn to some small redemptive good.
Let us take this moment to THANK all of you who support Christ School. Almost all of our 365-club donors (the general subsidy of $1/day that allows us to charge affordable tuition to Bundibugyo parents) and the OVC scholarship donors (full tuition for ten per class who are orphaned and most vulnerable) continued to give in 2020, in spite of COVID, in spite of recession. That meant that even without parents paying, we could give staff 85% of their normal salary. Every single one stayed with us throughout the closure. I believe we are the only school that continued staff programs, and the only private school that will be able to reopen now. That is not because we are somehow immune, somehow better . . . it is because we are connected to prayerful generous people.
Which brings us back to this week. Our staff worked hard to prepare. We procured hand-washing stations donated to schools and brought them for each classroom, thermometers for the gate guard and infirmary, soap and bleach. The desks were rearranged to be spaced 20/classroom instead of 40, dividing the senior four students into two streams (double the class time for teachers but OK since only 1/3 of the school is back). Dorms were reopened also with limited students so they could spread apart. The kitchen staff began purchasing food. On Wednesday our team and the entire staff spent about an hour and a half on a prayer walk, asking God to be present, to protect, to work, to bless each aspect of student life, from the classrooms, chapel, dorms, football pitch, admin block, infirmary, gate, staff apartments, kitchen. At the end, Patrick showed us our certificate from the District Education Officer that allowed reopening: we scored 97%, highest of the 200 or so mostly government primary and secondary schools in Bundibugyo.
And on Thursday, the allowed 64 Senior 4 and 6 candidates began to trickle back. You might think after seven months they would be banging on the gate to get back in, but in reality, most people probably didn't believe it would actually happen. Families are no doubt still scrambling to assemble fees. People are no doubt nervous about the safety of the idea for their children. Waiting to see what happens, what others do. Transitions are difficult and gradual. As of today, about half had returned. The government's plan is to ignore the missing second half of first term, have a shortened second term now until Christmas (normally May, June, July) and another abbreviated third term January and February, with O-level exams in March and A-level in April. No plan yet for how to mesh that with the return of S1, 2, 3, and 5, or how to coordinate back into a calendar-year pace.
Scott and I walked down to the CSB church service this morning at 8 am, as we had all of 2019 and the beginning of 2020. And while we rejoice in reopening, the sobering reality of what 2020 has wrought weighed on us. A gloomy morning dripped rain. Students sat one-per-bench, wearing masks, staying apart. It was a bit difficult to understand the speakers, or even connect emotionally with half-covered faces. Offerings were brought cautiously, songs were limited to three students leading from the front. The atmosphere was subdued. No hint of the normal energy of praise and worship, no lighthearted joy. And yet . . . Desmond preached from Lamentations 3, and Patrick and Scott both emphasised the same paradox. This year has brought our world loss and sorrow; nothing can separate us from God's love. We wait in faith. Not the worship we are used to, which made our hearts heavy for these kids, for this continent. But a sign of resilience and hope nonetheless. Faithful staff. Courageous students. High stakes. The most seriously we have seen precautions taken yet in Uganda.
If the virus gets into a boarding school, we could be shut down, or worse, people could die. If we can stick to our SOP's (standard operating procedures) and teach with masks and hygiene and distance and caution, another 64 kids can take their next step in being the leaders who will serve Bundibugyo with skill and humility.
Join us in praying for Christ School Bundibugyo over the next nine weeks. That we and our students would deeply experience the truth of the prophet Jeremiah's words: God's mercies are new every morning, God's faithfulness to us is greater than COVID or recession or insecurity or poverty or danger of any kind.