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Uganda has decided to end the world’s longest school shutdown, resuming classes for millions of children after a nearly two-year break.

Since March 2020, when classes were closed as a result of COVID-19, around 15 million Ugandan students have not attended school.

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Education Minister John Muyingo said all students would automatically resume classes a year above where they left off.

“All schools have implemented guidelines and standard operating procedures to ensure the safe return of children to schools,” he told the AFP news agency. “Measures have been put in place to ensure those who do not comply do so.”

Any private schools charging tuition beyond pre-pandemic levels, according to Muyingo, will be sanctioned.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni lifted the bulk of COVID-19-related restrictions in the country in September last year, but he left schools shuttered.

He announced in October last year that schools would reopen early next year regardless of the vaccination uptake, which is currently low.

The rush to return children to school clogged traffic in the capital Kampala on Monday.

Child rights groups had criticised Uganda’s decision to keep schools fully or partially shuttered for 83 weeks, longer than anywhere else in the world.

According to the most recent official numbers released on January 7, Uganda has 153,762 cases of COVID-19 and 3,339 deaths.

Despite President Museveni’s claim that “right now 4.7 million vaccinations” are accessible, and another 23 million doses are due by the end of the year, Ugandans have shown a reluctance to be vaccinated.

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During the pandemic, many school-aged boys entered the child labour market to work in mining, street vending and sugarcane planting.

According to the National Planning Authority (NPA), up to 30 percent of students are expected to not return to their school desks due to teen pregnancy, early marriage and child labour.

UNICEF says the country reported a 22.5-percent jump in pregnancies among girls aged 10 to 24.

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