Every school morning, Geoffrey Ocira stops his lessons for half an hour, rushing to his office to give his HIV-positive students their antiretroviral (ARV) medication.
"The pupils ask me to keep their ARV drugs while in school so that they don't miss their day's treatment," Ocira, a head teacher at a primary school in Layibi, in northern Uganda's Gulu District, told IRIN/PlusNews.
"I tell them to follow their treatment, eat a balanced diet, never engage in too much physical work and avoid thinking too much because they should feel happy that people are there to help them," he said.
In much of northern Uganda, HIV-related stigma is still a big issue in schools and few parents are brave enough to disclose their children's HIV status to their teachers.
"Most times we learn that a child is HIV-positive when they are falling sick continuously, so we press their parents to tell us the child's health status," said Andrew Otim, a teacher at Laliya Primary School in Gulu.
As trust develops between the teachers and their students, more HIV-positive students and their parents are opening up to teachers about their children's special circumstances.
"My mother advised me not to fear my teacher because he will help me keep my medicine for the morning dose so that I don't miss it," said Sunday*, a pupil at Ocira's school. "I keep some of my ARV drugs in school and the others at home; the teacher keeps my medication for the morning and my mother keeps the night medication."
According to Sunday's mother, it was a relief to have the additional support in caring for her child.
Today, six pupils at the school have disclosed their status to Ocira, but many more remain too afraid of being stigmatized.
According to Samuel Ogonono, a centre coordinating tutor for primary schools in Gulu, all primary schools are required to implement the Presidential Initiative on AIDS Strategy Communication to Youth to provide accurate information on HIV as well as to eliminate stigma and discrimination among school children, their families and communities.
|Most times we learn that a child is HIV-positive when they are falling sick continuously, so we press their parents to tell us the child's health status|
"We are seeing children that are very much aware of HIV and their behaviours are changing but teachers need to work harder on that," he said.
Betty Akongo is one of the teachers in charge of the communication programme at a local primary school. "We have class talks about HIV, focus group discussions, music, dance and drama, essays and poems, inter-school HIV club meetings, children’s radio-talk shows, testimonies from HIV-positive children, home visits and counselling for families affected by HIV," she said.
She noted that the programme was particularly important for teenagers. "You know children of adolescent age... are easily excited so that requires consistent and extra care."
But Ben Okwamoi, district education officer in Amuru District, said the programme had suffered from a lack of attention by some teachers.
"They do not engage children adequately on providing them with the required information; that is why you see other school children stigmatize fellow pupils," he said.