School reopening guidelines: 2 million Lagos students face uncertainty

•UNILAG, LASU, YABATECH, NUT, proprietors speak •We won’t release our children —Parents

TUNBOSUN OGUNDARE reports that school resumption in Lagos may tarry longer than expected.

IT appears that reopening of schools in Lagos State is not going to happen anytime soon despite the desire of all stakeholders to see students return to the classrooms. The COVID-19 pandemic does not seem to be in a hurry to go away and stakeholders in the state may also have accepted the reality that having physical classes back in place pretty soon may be a pipe dream after all, according to Saturday Tribune findings.

The state remains the epicenter of the pandemic in the country. At the moment, more than 30 per cent of all the persons infected by the virus and deaths in the country are from the state. Coupled with this is the city’s students’ population, which is arguably the highest in the country.

 

Return of evening school for a million students?

According to a students census carried out by the state government in 2018, a total of 480,110 pupils were in the state-owned primary schools alone. The figure of students in junior and senior public secondary schools at same period stood at 337,724 and 229,980 respectively, bringing the total of all the students in all the 1,687 public schools in the state at those levels of education to 1,047,814. As of today, with no accurate statistics in place, it is expected that the number must be slightly higher as more parents are now enrolling their children in public secondary schools, especially in the model colleges, for certain reasons, including the financial implication of so doing in private schools.

While this huge student population is just for public schools, the figure in the entire 18,573 government-approved private schools across the 20 local government areas of the state (minus thousands of unapproved others) would certainly be higher, though a specific figure isn’t yet in place. Saturday Tribune observed that private schools, especially at creche/kindergarten/nursery and primary level, are actually at every corner across the state. Even many streets have more than two of such educational institutions, with each boasting an appreciable number of pupils.

The student population, among other factors, explains why the state government has been having a hard time, according to investigations, in fashioning out modalities for schools to reopen under a safe environment. Although the state government said it was waiting for the Federal Government’s directive in this regard, it has eventually come up, tentatively so, with some rules to guide school operations any moment students are asked to resume. Part of the considerations, according to the Commissioner for Education, Mrs Folasade Adefisayo, is to run staggered classes for students. She explained what the arrangement entails at a recent press conference held to commemorate the first anniversary of the administration of Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu. Mrs Adefisayo said students would only need to come to school only when they have lessons while at the same time continuing with their virtual lessons on various digital platforms.

 

Unworkable ideas?

This arrangement has been faulted by some observers who argue that based on the pressure of work and traffic snarl in the state, many parents, especially the working class, just want to dump their children in schools and then go to work until they return home late in the evening, a mindset that makes the proposal unworkable for them, since it would be difficult to watch over their wards when they are not having classes and staying back at home. But there are other provisions which are complicating the central idea of staggering the classes. According to the commissioner, other requirements for reopening include compulsory fumigation of school premises, provision of infrared thermometer, hand washing machines with running water and alcohol-based hand sanitiser, while in the interim, the schools are expected to continue engaging their students through digital learning. At a virtual meeting with the leadership of various private school associations, as well as the permanent secretary and some directors in the education ministry, Saturday Tribune learnt, she also announced that every school must observe social\physical distancing, regular decontamination of their environment, non-holding of sporting activities, the pasting of safety rules at the gate, compulsory wearing of face masks by students and workers, and compelling those who are unwell to stay at home and seek medical help.

 

Too risky to resume –Parents

With the renewed tension in the state due to spike in infection rate and high-profile COVID-19 deaths, which has led to the cancellation of the earlier partial lifting of ban on religious activities, parents and guardians are not comfortable releasing their children and wards to go back to school at this time and even in weeks to come. They believe that the sky, as regards the pandemic, is still very cloudy and would need to become clear before schools can reopen and students asked to resume.

Mr Kayode Ajibade has two children in Command Secondary School, Ipaja, one in SS3, preparing for this year’s postponed-April\May Senior School Certificate Examination being conducted by the West African Examinations Council (WAEC) and the other in JSS class. For him, this is not an ideal time to reopen schools, considering the continued rise in COVID-19 confirmed cases and deaths not only in the state but across the country and the limited knowledge of children about the virus and its implications on people and the economy. However, he said the government may consider the final year students at all levels of education, so that they can write their terminal examinations, though such a special arrangement should not in any way compromise the social\ physical distancing and personal hygiene principle for the students and examination officials.

Another parent, Mr Akin Adewakun, whose son just gained admission into the University of Lagos (UNILAG), Akoka, expressed the belief that it is improper for schools to reopen at this time. He lamented that the closure of schools at all levels for this long in the country is inimical to development. “But there is no alternative to that for now because of the spreading of the virus and recorded deaths across states of the federation. The virus is on the rampage. The figure of confirmed cases and deaths in the last few days is alarming. So, every effort should be geared towards curbing the spread of the disease for now as re-opening of schools will be suicidal,” he said.

Holding same view is Mr Olanrewaju Adesina, an engineer whose children attend a school in New Oko-Oba. Adesina based his argument on the fact that pupils, especially those in nursery and primary schools, won’t be able to wear face masks properly and also won’t understand what social or physical distancing entails, let alone follow the laid-down principles. He said: “Inasmuch as we are trying to contain the spread of the virus, it is advisable and wise that schools remain closed and students continue with their online lessons for now as such will save us as individuals and as a country from a bigger disaster. That is why I won’t be comfortable allowing my children to go to school for now.”

Also baring his mind, the deputy national president and Southwest coordinator of Parent-Teacher Association of Nigeria (PTA), Chief Deolu Ogunbanjo, said the typical classroom environment in the country, especially in public schools, including Lagos State with too many students in a class, does not give room for the social or physical distancing principle. “And we cannot, because of that, start thinking of reducing the number of students that will be in school except government can reintroduce morning and afternoon sessions, as implemented in the South-West during the Second Republic,” he noted. Even at that, he pointed out that COVID-19 is re-engineering various sectors of the economy and asking every professional to be more creative with the aid of technology in their approach to their professions. “Children are safer at home with their parents, more so that they are now being engaged in digital lessons. As most of the previous global pandemics have shown by lasting between one and two years and with this daily rise in COVID-19 spread, it is not likely the school will reopen until September,” he added.

 

We want to work but… –Teachers

Like the parents and guardians, teachers, owners of private schools and managements of tertiary institutions in the state prefer that students remain at home, at least for now. For example, the state chairman of the Nigerian Union of Teachers, Mr Adesina Adedoyin, told Saturday Tribune that the state government should follow the advice given by the health experts on the way to go. According to him, the health experts are to determine when schools are safe for reopening, especially as students in nursery and primary schools are most vulnerable, as pointed out by others, due to their tender age. “So, it’s not resumption that matters most at the moment, it is to stay safe and healthy because if we rush into reopening of schools and coronavirus crisis escalates, we will shut the schools again and of what importance then would such be to us. Even the fact that the curve is going up astronomically daily is a clear indication that there is still much danger in the land. We should wait until the graph starts descending and probably flattens. Then the schools can reopen. The curve is the true analysis of the situation which is essential in this regard. If we are just clamouring for school reopening without the necessary measures to curb the spread of the virus in place, we will be deceiving ourselves. The issue of COVID-19 is life and death and it is only those who are alive and well that can create wealth,” Adedoyin reasoned.

On what the NUT would love the state government to put in place ahead of resumption of schools, he said the union had already sent a memo in that regard to the government with the belief that it would do as advised. He said the union believes so much in the leadership style of the commissioner for education, especially as regards making efforts to ensure a hitch-free resumption. Even at that, he noted the overcrowding in most public school classrooms and poor sanitary system. He disclosed that the challenge necessitated the union to ask government to move some students temporarily from the highly-populated schools to those that are less-populated as a way of ensuring social\physical distancing. He admitted that the execution might not be as easy as proposed but it would be part of the sacrifice all stakeholders must make until things get back to normal. When asked if the government would be financially capable of meeting its obligations, considering the huge fund that would be required to meet the guidelines for the large number of schools and students, he said the belief is that the private sector, philanthropists, well-meaning individuals and groups at community level would join hands with the government to get the job done.

He, however, pointed out that this is not an excuse for the government to shy away from its primary responsibility to the people, adding, “what is certain is that the government cannot afford to attend to everything all alone since it has to carry out other responsibilities in other sectors of the economy.”

 

Open private schools first –NAPPS

Just like teachers, private school owners are eager to go back to their duty posts. But unlike teachers, especially those in public schools, whose salaries are intact and being paid each month since the lockdown, the private tutors whose salaries aren’t certain during this period are seeking phased reopening, starting with students in terminal classes and then private schools, before getting to general resumption. For example, the president of the National Association of Proprietors of Private Schools (NAPPS), Lagos State chapter, Mr Amusa Olawale, his counterpart in charge of the League of Muslim School Proprietors (LEAMSP), Mr Fatai Raheem, as well as the president of the Association of Formidable Education (AFED), Mr Orji Kanu, subscribe to the opinion that the government does not need to reopen all schools at a go. They said although they are aware that coronavirus is a matter of life and death, since the schools are involved in moulding future leaders, gradual easing of schools should not be totally out of place. They said what they are after now, aside from staying alive and healthy, is working towards meeting the guidelines ahead of resumption. While pointing out that the guidelines are taxing and money-consuming, they have little problem meeting up, unlike public schools which are mostly overpopulated and lacking in basic sanitary system.

The present of AFED, whose most member-schools are low-cost (as low as N5,000 school fee per term), for instance, said members are working towards abiding by the guidelines ahead of reopening.

NAPPS boss told Saturday Tribune that most member-schools have already procured necessary items such as infrared thermometer, hand-washing machine, sanitiser, among others, and have mapped out strategies for their effective use, while waiting for the government to reopen schools. He, like his colleagues, emphasised that private schools have no problem maintaining social\physical distancing as most of their classrooms are underpopulated and they have functional sickbays. “Aside from that,” he added, “we are going to reduce the number of hours our students will spend each day while we complement our teaching with virtual lessons for them from home.”

In the same vein, AFED member-schools are reportedly working in unison to get the major items ready and at reduced prices for use after resumption.

For example, Kanu said AFED, as a body, has been able to procure thousands of infrared thermometer at N16,500 per unit as against the N45,000 market price. “We also have mass-production of a very effective automated hand-washing machines to be distributed to our members at N18,000 per unit as against N40,000 the same machine costs in the market. It is one of our teachers who graduated from Yaba College of Technology (YABATECH), Lagos, that invented the machine, while we support him as an association,” he added. That is not all. Kanu disclosed that some well financially positioned individuals among them have volunteered to mass-produce face masks and share to member-schools free of charge.

 

Coronavirus has ruined our business –AFED

Kanu, however, lamented the havoc the pandemic has wreaked on the economy, particularly in the education sector. He said more than half of teachers in AFED member schools are yet to collect February salary, let alone the three succeeding months. According to him, many AFED schools don’t charge much as regards school fees and levies, yet many parents can’t pay as and when due. He added that some of the schools even give scholarship to indigent students. In the face of all these, he said the members worry that the fact that the state government, which has many schools and students to cater for, amid other commitments, could prolong the desired reopening.

 

UNILAG, LASU, YABATECH speak

For the University of Lagos (UNILAG), Akoka, Lagos State University (LASU), Ojo, and Yaba College of Technology (YABATECH), the situation must improve greatly before full reopening should be considered. At the moment, only senior members of staff from Grade Level 13 upward are coming to work, just as the government has directed the rest of the staff members and the entire students to stay back at home.

UNILAG’s deputy vice chancellor in charge of academics and research, Professor Wole Familoni and LASU’s head of public affairs, Mr Ademola Adekoya and Adekoya’s counterpart at YABATECH, Mr Ndubueze Ejiofor, told Saturday Tribune in separate interviews that although their institutions were eager to reopen if the government gives the go-ahead, the authorities would ensure that necessary measures are in place at strategic places on their campuses, including the lecture rooms, offices and hostels, where applicable, before complying with the reopening order.  They said their schools would first be fumigated by the government before other things could follow for them to have hitch-free operations when full activities commence.

LASU, for example, said its newly invented automated hand-washing machine that can accommodate three users at a time would significantly serve the institution on the regular hand-washing principle when students return. Even at that, the trio said their institutions’ resumption for full academic activities could only happen when the COVID-19 situation has greatly improved.

 

Full reopening guidelines for private schools

  1. Cleaning of school compound.
  2. Fumigation of school compound/classrooms.
  3. Purchase necessary items on prevention coronavirus, e.g.

(i)  Public awareness banners

(ii)  Hand washing station

(iii)  Liquid soap

(iv)  Sanitiser

(v)  Infrared thermometer

(vi)  Face masks

(vii)  Face Shields

(viii) Standing point stickers

(xi)  Bracelets refillable sanitiser

  1. Training of our staff on new standard of operation.
  2. Social distancing in school, e.g.

(I)  Limit the number of learners per class

(ii)  No assembly and suspension of sports/social activities

(iii)  Fewer students on school buses/outsourcing the school transport system

(iv)  Reduce academic hours

(v)  Having six days per week for schooling

  1. Letter of indemnity to parents.
  2. Adequate information of learners through registration/monitoring of absentees.
  3. Frequent information with parents.
  4. Well equipped recovery rooms with qualified nurse.
  5. Register with approved hospital that is not far from the school.

 

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