Uganda’s schools reopened to students on Monday, bringing the world’s longest school closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic to an end.

The reopening caused traffic congestion in some areas of the capital, Kampala, and students were seen carrying their mattresses through the streets, a back-to-boarding school phenomenon not seen in nearly two years.

According to figures from the United Nations Cultural Organization, Uganda’s schools have been closed completely or partially for more than 83 weeks, the world’s longest disruption. More than ten million students were impacted by the shutdown.

The 44 million-person East African country shut down its schools for the first time in March 2020, shortly after the African continent’s first coronavirus case was confirmed. Some classes reopened in February 2021, but a total lockdown was imposed once more in June as the country faced its first major surge.

The reopening was long overdue for many parents.

“Inevitably, we’ll have to open schools,” Felix Okot, the father of a 6-year-old kindergarten student, said. “Our children’s and our country’s futures are at stake.”

He warned that the country’s schools could not “wait forever” for the pandemic to end.

The prolonged school lockdown sparked controversy in a country where many people ignored measures aimed at containing the virus’s spread. Vaccine skepticism persists, even among health workers, with increasing reports of fake COVID-19 vaccination cards being sold in downtown Kampala. Many students who returned to school are believed to have received no assistance during the lockdown. Most public schools in Uganda, which serve the vast majority of children, were unable to provide virtual schooling. In a November report on students in a remote Ugandan town where weeds grew in classrooms and some students worked as gold miners in a swamp.

Some critics pointed out that President Yoweri Museveni’s government — an authoritarian who has been in power for 36 years and whose wife is the education minister — did little to promote home-based learning. Museveni justified the lockdown by claiming that infected students posed a risk to their parents and other people.

“There are a lot of things that can’t be predicted right now.” The turnout of students is unpredictable, as is the turnout of teachers “Fagil Mandy, a former government school inspector who now works as an independent consultant, agreed. “What concerns me the most is that many children will not return to school for a variety of reasons, including school fees.”

Mandy also expressed concern that a virus outbreak “will spread very quickly” in crowded schools, urging school administrators to keep a close eye on the situation.

Save the Children welcomed the reopening of Uganda’s schools, but warned that “lost learning may lead to high dropout rates in the coming weeks if urgent action is not taken.” “It mentioned catch-up clubs among other things.

In a statement issued Monday, the aid organization warned of a surge in dropouts “as returning students who have fallen behind in their learning fear they have no chance of catching up.”

With an alarming rise in virus cases in recent days, it is unclear how long Uganda’s schools will remain open. In the last week, health officials have reported a daily positivity rate of more than 10%, up from nearly zero in December. Museveni has threatened a new lockdown if intensive care units reach 50% capacity.

Authorities waived any COVID test requirements for students in the hopes of a smooth return to school. An abridged curriculum has also been approved as part of a deal that will automatically promote all students to the next class. Uganda has received foreign support toward the reopening of schools.

The U.N. children’s agency and the governments of the U.K. and Ireland announced financial support focusing on virus surveillance and the mental health of students and teachers in 40,000 schools. They said their support was key for Uganda’s school system to remain open.