As the COVID-19 pandemic swirls ferociously, a decision to reopen schools closed in the wake of the outbreak has become a hard nut to crack. The predicament is worsened by the daily spike in the number of confirmed new cases of the highly infectious virus and the palpable carefree attitude of the public in the enforcement of the protocols for its containment.
The Minister of State for Education, Chukwuemeka Nwajiuba, at one of the Presidential Task Force briefings on COVID-19, raised hope of an imminent resumption when he issued a set of guidelines that schools should follow. “All institutions of learning must have hand washing facilities, body temperature checks, body disinfectants at all entering points to their major facilities, including the gates, hostels, classes and offices,” he said. “Ensure social and physical distancing in class sizes and eating spaces. The whole premises of each institution must be decontaminated and all efforts must be geared toward maintenance of the highest level of hygiene.”
A few weeks later, the Chairman of the PTF, Boss Mustapha, poured cold water on this expectation with the insistence that it was not yet safe to do so. Nwajiuba said the country had 138,000 primary schools and without COVID-19 testing capacity at utmost level, “the best we can do is to keep our children, our future leaders, and schools under lock and key.” But the Oyo State Government has decided to take the bull by the horns with the June 29 date for teachers’ resumption, a precursor to the reopening of classes for Primary Six, Junior Secondary School 3 and Senior Secondary School 3, a week later. Pupils in the three categories are in exit classes — to take final examinations that will qualify them to enter JSS1, SSS1 and tertiary institutions respectively.
The Federal Government has frowned on the move. In a guideline the Federal Ministry of Education submitted to the National Assembly, it advised states bent on reopening schools to hold adequate consultations with the PTF and the parents. Besides, the schools should create temporary isolation spaces and fully equipped clinics; establish a referral system and protocol to take care of learners, teachers and school administrators, should emergencies arise. School proprietors are to “construct additional structures and employ more teachers to ensure that they accommodate their pupils by adhering to the two-meter spacing system in classrooms.”
All this has generated public anxiety, exacerbated by the spike in the number of cases of the virus. The government argues that the pandemic is yet to peak hence circumspection is required. The trend in other countries where schools were shut down shortly after reopening in the wake of a resurgence of the virus has not helped matters either. In Israel, for instance, schools were closed hurriedly just three weeks after resumption. Its Ministry of Education announced that 442 students, faculty and staff were infected with the virus. Consequently, 144 schools and kindergartens were closed and 24,000 students and staff quarantined. This is scary.
To assist countries to reopen their schools, UNESCO, in a guideline, listed three priority areas — finance, infrastructure and human resources. Readjustment of education budgets is critical. Others include discussion with health authorities, establishing a set of conditions that must be met; renovating and improving hygienic facilities like toilets, washrooms; guaranteeing hand-washing points, availability of disposable towels and running water. Very crucial is free school feeding as an incentive for children to return; preparing out-of-school classes and making use of technical resources. Training of teachers to monitor children and identify those with difficulties, UNESCO says, is imperative.
The hard truth is that schools cannot remain closed indefinitely. The huge challenge, it is argued, is how to strike a balance among competing priorities: the health and safety of those in the school community, the impact of the pandemic on jobs and families, and the need to effectively educate students. Families will definitely balk at returning children to school if they sense that school authorities have not taken the COVID-19 threat seriously or have done too little to shield students from harm.
Many countries have reopened their schools with a cocktail of COVID-19 protocols and advisories to guide school heads and managements. Like economic activities in lockdown for three months virtually all over the world, but gradually, reopening the schools cannot be frozen forever. This was why the United Kingdom reopened on June 15. It adopted the strategy to reopen classes for year 10 and year 12 pupils. The Department of Education in its guidance for secondary school resumption stipulated a phased return of some pupils for face-to-face contact with their teachers. With this, schools are able to have a quarter of the pupils back. Younger primary schools pupils have also been prioritised because “the early years of education are crucial for social and educational development.”
With COVID-19 protocols, local and other guidelines from abroad, both federal and state governments should ensure the conditions are largely met before reopening schools. However, the bitter truth is that it would be easier said than done in Nigeria given the schools’ decrepit conditions before the pandemic. Rural primary schools with pit latrines and no water are non-starters in this case. Even urban schools are similarly challenged, including the universities that lack basic facilities such as running water, conveniences, while over-crowded halls of residence, classrooms and underfunding are intractable challenges.
The desire to return to in-person classes should not outweigh the risks of exposing students and staff to a highly contagious virus. School reopening plans must be based on scientific data and public health guidelines — not political pressure. The feasibility of physical distancing measures is already the subject of debate, with experts tending towards the view that they will not work for the youngest children. These are potentially life-or-death judgments that have to be made.
School reopening requires caution, planning and vigilance. Anthony Fauci, the United States’ top infectious disease expert, rightly says, “I think we better be careful [that] we are not cavalier in thinking that children are completely immune to the Covid-19 deleterious effects.”
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