BUSIA – Dressed in his school uniform, Mathias Okwako jumped into the mud and started his daily search for gold, a commodity that may be closer to his grasp than another precious asset: an education.
His rural school in Uganda sits idle just across the road from the swamp where he and scores of children now work as informal miners. Weeds grow in some classrooms, where window frames have been looted for firewood. Another school nearby is renting out rooms to tenants.
Uganda’s schools have been fully or partially shut for more than 77 weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic, the longest disruption anywhere in the world, according to figures from the U.N. cultural agency.
And unlike many parts of the globe, where lessons moved online, most public schools, which serve the vast majority of children in this East African country, were unable to offer virtual schooling.
In the void left, some students got married. Some are dealing with unwanted pregnancies. Others, like 17-year-old Okwako, found jobs.
The pandemic has manufactured “outcasts,” a lost generation of learners now “in a battle of how to fit in,” said Moses Mangeni, an official with the local government in Busia, where Okwako lives.
Efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 have disrupted the lives of children in every corner of the globe, squeezing their parents, complicating their care, and often removing their safety nets. Perhaps most crucially, it has thrown their schooling into chaos.
The result is the “biggest global education emergency of our time,” according to the aid group Save the Children, which last month identified 48 countries, including Uganda, whose school systems are at extreme or high risk of collapse. Most are in sub-Saharan Africa, a region long marked by high dropout rates and a shortage of qualified teachers.
Some other parts of the world that saw protracted closures also struggled to teach students. Mexico, where internet connectivity is low in many places, opted for educational programming via television. Ultimately, the pandemic was devastating for children in Mexico, which saw millions leave school as well as increases in child homicides, teen pregnancies and domestic violence.
In Iraq, remote learning was similarly “limited and unequal,” according to the World Bank.
Some wealthier countries fared better. In Kuwait, because most public schools weren't equipped to go online when the virus first struck, all schooling was suspended for seven months in 2020. But then the oil-rich Gulf Arab sheikhdom poured $212 million into an e-learning platform, and all schools went online. The rollout is considered a success.
But in Uganda there is no success to speak of.
The country first shut down its schools in March 2020, shortly after the first coronavirus case was confirmed on the African continent. Some classes were reopened to students in February, but a total lockdown was imposed again in June as the country faced its first major surge. It is now the only country in Africa where schools remain closed — though President Yoweri Museveni announced last week that they would reopen in January.
That comes as virus cases have tapered off in recent months, with the country now recording an average of 70 new infections each day and a couple of deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. So far, Uganda has fully vaccinated about 700,000 of its 44 million people.
First lady Janet Museveni, who is the country's education minister, has rejected criticism that the government isn't doing enough to teach kids. In a speech in October, she asked “why our children cannot be safe at home. What happened to the family?”
The problem, some Ugandans say, is that the government hasn’t found a successful way to keep up learning during lockdown. A suggested national program to broadcast lessons via free radio sets didn’t materialize, and in rural areas many children don’t have learning materials of any kind.
As elsewhere, schools typically also provide a refuge to vulnerable children: They may be fed there or receive their routine childhood vaccinations or have access to other services not easily available at home.
But in Uganda’s poorest homes, children are now often left to their own devices, without the private tutoring or Zoom lessons that wealthy families can afford.
In Busia, even before the pandemic, the sight of kids peddling goods in the streets wasn't uncommon. Things have only become worse.
Many children who spoke to The Associated Press expressed hopelessness amid the protracted lockdown.
Okwako, who said he was wearing his school uniform while searching for gold because he had nothing else to put on, sought work out of boredom but regrets that the tiring days leave him little energy to study on his own.
“No time (for) reading books,” he said. “If you try to open a book, you just go asleep, and sleep up to tomorrow.”
At the informal gold mine, students toil alongside adults, including some of their teachers, under the scorching sun. Witnesses said the risks and frustrations of the precarious work have led to fistfights, and some children have broken limbs while digging.
A typical day can bring in just over $2, enough for a child to buy a pair of used shoes. Okwako is proud of the two pigs he bought with his earnings. Other children said they use the money help to look after their families, regularly buying salt or soap.
“We come here to make money,” said 16-year-old Annet Aita, whose job is to wash the sandy soil in which gold dust is trapped, using highly toxic mercury.
But work also provides a refuge from other dangers that stalk those not in school. Aita said she felt more fortunate than some friends who “got pregnancies at home.”
Teacher Francis Adungosi said he now works at the mine “from Monday to Monday” and warned that he will need a “refresher course” before going back to the classroom.
As for his students, "they are traumatized. Remember they are having a lot of challenges. Some of them are pregnant. Some have already got married. Handling those children is going to be so tasking.”
That's for those who go back. Many say they won't.
Some of the children now say, “we don’t recall what we read, so why should we go back?” said Gilbert Mugalanzi, of the group Somero Uganda, which carried out a survey in November to assess how the pandemic was affecting schoolchildren in parts of Busia.
At Okwako's Mawero Primary School, teacher Emmy Odillo said he expects a small fraction of the 400 students to return next year.
Others have similarly low expectations.
Bosco Masaba, the director of studies at Busia Central Primary School, the private school nearby that has been converted into rentals, said he regularly sees some students in the streets selling tomatoes or eggs. He heard that some girls became domestic workers across the border in Kenya.
“Some, they have lost hope completely,” Masaba said.
Christopher Sherman in Mexico City, Zeina Karam in Beirut, and Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.