It is precisely 10 weeks after the announced the closure of schools, beginning with 104 Unity Schools and others across the country, as a proactive step aimed at preventing the spread of the dreaded Coronavirus. Recently, there have been growing agitations as well as debates on the need for government to reopen schools after putting in place the necessary protocols. OYENIRAN APATA writes

Amidst expected ease of the lockdown, the Federal Gov­ernment on June 6, 2020, through the Minister of State for Education, Mr. Chukwueme­ka Nwajiuba, at the 36th joint nation­al briefing of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, said government cannot reopen schools until it is sure “our children can go to school and re­turn safely without taking COVID-19 home.”

However, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the outbreak of COVID-19 has led to the closure of schools in more than 190 countries, thereby affecting 1.57 billion children and youth repre­senting 90% of the world’s student population.

In Nigeria, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said school enrol­ment for 2017 showed that a total of 3,424,175 students registered in public senior secondary schools with male students accounting for 1,858,560 and female students 1,565,615. It puts the number of mixed public secondary schools in Nigeria at 8,930 in 2016, while 9,015 schools were accounted for in 2017. Similarly, Chief Yomi Otubela, President, National Associa­tion of Proprietors Of Private Schools (NAPPS) said 83, 5243 private schools under the association accounts for 34, 614, 1692 learners and over one mil­lion teaching and non-teaching staff. At the tertiary education sector, Nige­ria has 170 Universities, 43 are federal, 48 are state-owned and 79 are private universities. Others include polytech­nics, colleges of education and other tertiary institutions accounting for over 600,000 undergraduate students.

However, as the Federal govern­ment eased the lockdown on some sectors of the economy leaving edu­cation and others, stakeholders in the education sector have been reacting to the development. Just as a section comprising the parents and school owners commended the decision to hold on to the lockdown giving the rising incidences of the spread of the virus across the country, the right ac­tivists consider the continued closure as a fallout of poor investment in the gov­ernment in giving quality education to the Nigerian child.

We Cannot Breathe, Private Education Sub-sector Cries

Otubela, NAPPS National Presi­dent said government’s continued closure of schools in the country without the necessary palliative to this strategic sub-sector ‘has only portrayed the Central Government as being insensitive and lack of concern for the investors, staff and stakeholders in the private education sub-sector’. “We think that the Fed­eral Government cannot continue to shut down schools without providing much-needed palliatives to bail out private education sub-sector, which seems to be on the brim of collapse due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Approving that safeguarding public health through the lockdown was necessary, Otubela told Saturday INDEPENDENT that the Federal Government needs to be reminded of the impact the continued closure of schools could have on the men­tal health of individuals who earn their living from the subsector and also private school investors whose multi-billion naira investments in the sub-sector are presently under threat of collapse. He added that, “The dis­ruption of school academic activi­ties as a result of the closure of these schools arising from the COVID-19 pandemic is not only affecting the learning process of the children but adversely affecting the schools’ finances.”

Mrs. Titilayo Adeniran, Founder of Mansfield-Petra Nursery and Pri­mary School, Gbagada, Lagos told our correspondent that COVID-19 has posed an unprecedented period in the education sector in Nigeria and across the world, adding that it had been very difficult for the children as they have been kept out of the learn­ing environment for too long. Not leaving owners of schools and par­ents out of the negative effects caused by the pandemic, she lamented that the situation had become precarious and severe. She therefore called for a cautious approach and high sense of responsibility before school gates are flung open for learning.

“In as much as the economic sta­tus of schools is becoming unpalat­able, we have no choice but put the safety of the pupils first. Children can only be present and receive lessons when they are healthy and sound. These present circumstances will eventually become history. When it does, our joy is to have all our pupils back with us in school and same with our teachers and non-academic staff,” Adeniran explained.

Mrs. Bose Oloyede, a mother who is based in Ibadan, said the situation calls for caution to avoid a spike in the spread of the coronavirus as the government begins ease lockdown. “At the moment, the COVID-19 spread is not decreasing as cases in the coun­try shot up to over 10,000 already. The taught about the reopening of schools at this period is like putting the lives of millions of children and students in maximum danger. “Think about children in public schools where there is a shortfall in the supply of learning facilities, inadequate class­rooms, low number of teacher: stu­dent ratio, no toilets and water. That will spell doom for the country and many families, God forbid.

“These classes of children take public buses to get to school and re­turn home having been exposed to the danger of coming in contact with all manners of commuters in public places. Public schools are over-popu­lated just as the sitting arrangement in classrooms is porous with no space to observe social distancing and all protocols spelt out by the World Health Organisation. In my opinion, the government should just wait for a few more weeks before flinging open school gates,” Oloyede added.

Speaking on this matter in an interactive session with Saturday INDEPENDENT, Chief Afe Baba­lola, Founder and Chancellor, Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti, Ekiti State approved that the effect of Coro­navirus pandemic is real, dangerous and incontrovertible, adding that it is painful and intolerable that schools had to be closed down for the past three months.

“The huge lesson COVID-19 has taught us is the importance of per­sonal hygiene i.e. wash your hands, wash your face, wash your clothes, clean the environment, cover your nose when you sneeze or cough etc. That was the essence of a subject known as hygiene, which was made a compulsory subject in schools in the past.”

Babalola, who emphasised the need to protect the lives of students from Coronavirus, said locking them up alone should not be the only measure to achieve safety for students. He added that, “the total is that students coming to school must be healthy and free from Coronavi­rus. Teachers and other workers in school must also be free from Coro­navirus. The school environment must be clean and free from any virus. The proprietors must put in place the preventive measures to ensure security and safety.”

He advised the Presidential Task Force (PTF) to dialogue with pro­prietors of schools on the steps that should be taken to make schools safe and secure, adding, “If government and proprietors are made to comply with these prescriptions, they should be allowed to re-open their schools. Time is life. Life is time. Join me in ensuring that our children do not waste away.”

Urging the government not to wait until all towns and villages in Nigeria are free from coronavirus before reopening schools and uni­versities, Aare Babalola suggested that private institutions, which are reputed for quality and functional education, predictable academic cal­endar, moral and physical training, discipline, clean environment, and personal hygiene should be allowed to resume academic activities if list­ed conditions are fulfilled. He advised that apart from the provision of infra­red thermometers at the gate where students, staff and anybody coming into the university shall be tested by a nurse or medical personnel, institu­tions must have in place the following testing machines: Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR Machine) and Serolog­ical Test Machine.

Besides, he advocated that each school must have in place a building specially designed to accommodate any student who is suspected to have any type of infectious diseases rang­ing from cough, chickenpox, measles, diarrhea etc. other than Covid-19, two functional fumigation machines: one for external and the other for internal fumigation; all hostels, classrooms, cafeteria, conference halls and sports facilities shall be fumigated before re­sumption, schools must have testing kits as the students must undergo test fortnightly and use of face mask by students and staff in classrooms, conference halls and everywhere on the campus.

Advocating for a staggered re­sumption, he said visitors should be barred from the institutions and if allowed should be screened, adding that final year students dislodged pre­paratory to the final examination are to resume first, take their examina­tion and vacate the university with­in two to three weeks. He suggested a variation of the prescription for public schools, adding that the Min­istry of Education in the states where the public institution is situated shall on behalf of the Federal Government visit the public institutions and give a certificate of compliance before they can resume academic activities.

Government Not Demonstrated Enough Seriousness, Group Says

In a chat with Saturday INDE­PENDENT, Hassan Taiwo Soweto, National Coordinator, Education Rights Campaign (ERC) said that gov­ernment has not demonstrated any seriousness to open schools, adding that what the Presidential Task Force claimed for the ease of lockdown was not the science of the virus. “The number of cases is rising by the day. Rather it is the profit interest of the capitalist class that has led the gov­ernment to ease the lockdown. This explains why factories, workplaces, hotels and churches were the prior­ity list of the government in terms of who to allow function. As usual, public education is at the bottom of the list in the same way the sector has always been relegated when it comes to funding.”

According to him, the government failed to open schools because of the fear over the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) to pursue its demand concerning IPPIS and taking advantage of the reopening to call for a strike. Lamenting on the poor state of learning infrastructure in public school across the country, Hassan said schools are yet to receive facelift and decontamination as a precursor to the reopening of schools.

“Public primary and secondary schools with their ramshackle and rundown facilities have not received any face-lift in preparation for any opening. No serious decontamination has been done. Running water and soap are two major requirements to effectively prevent the virus spread but a majority of public schools lack running water. Despite promises a few years back during the Ebola outbreak, many schools still lack running water while sanitary and hygiene conditions remain terrible. Besides, no new block of classrooms have been built in many public schools to reduce over-crowding in class and ensure the effective imple­mentation of NCDC social distancing rules.

“In reality, class sizes need to be broken down into class sizes of the 20s and 30s. This will require the ex­pansion of classroom facilities across the country and mass employment of more teachers in thousands. This, if done, will not only bring enormous relief to overworked teachers, it will also improve the overall quality of education. Sadly, none of these measures is being discussed by the government,” he stated. The group tasked unions within the education sector not to allow the government to implement a hasty and sham re­opening of schools without provision of adequate measures and facilities to protect pupils and students from coronavirus.

He urged the Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT), ASUU, Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics (ASUP), National Association of Nigerian Student (NANS), should call on the Minister of Education to provide a blueprint of government plans to re­open schools.

UNICEF’s Framework For Reopening Schools

According to UNICEF, schools do much more than teach children how to read, write and count. They also provide nutrition, health and hygiene services; mental health and psychoso­cial support; and dramatically reduce the risk of violence, early pregnancy and more. And it’s the most vulnera­ble children who are the hardest hit by school closures, and we know from previous crises that the longer they are out of school, the less likely they are to return.

It urges government when re­opening schools to look at the ben­efits and risks across education, public health and socio-economic factors, in the local context, using the best available evidence. The best interest of every child should be paramount.

Decisions on reopening will re­quire countries to quickly gather critical information on how schools, teachers, students and communi­ties are coping with closures and the pandemic. Rapid response sur­veys of schools and local leaders, teachers, students and parents can help provide this information. Deci­sion-makers must then assess how learning and wellbeing can best be supported in each context, with spe­cial consideration of the benefits of classroom-based instruction vis-à-vis remote learning, against risk factors related to reopening of schools, not­ing the inconclusive evidence around the infection risks related to school attendance.

How To Reopen Schools

When select schools have been identified for reopening, six key di­mensions should be used to assess their states of readiness and inform planning: policy, financing, safe operations, learning, reaching the most marginalised and wellbeing/ protection. “Policy considerations and financial requirements togeth­er create the enabling environment needed to support each of the other dimensions. Contextualisation and adaptation will be critical to respond­ing to local needs and conditions, particularly in contexts where there are multiple deprivations (such as densely populated areas, low water settings, conflict, etc.)

The analysis must be done against pre-pandemic conditions, with an acknowledgement of both existing limitations in low-resource contexts and current goals Learning Includ­ing the most marginalised wellbeing and protection safe operations policy financing to improve operational and learning conditions. UNICEF added, “The response should serve as a cat­alyst to improve learning outcomes, increase equitable access to education and strengthen the protection, health and safety of children.”

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