The ‘reopening’ of schools

ON Monday, the Federal Government partially lifted the ban on schools occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic in the country. Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, Mr. Boss Mustapha, disclosed this at the daily briefing of the task force in Abuja. According to him, the reopening was meant to allow students in graduating classes to resume preparations for examinations. He added that the latest developments were contained in the task force’s fifth interim report submitted to President Muhammadu Buhari. Declaring that the PTF had continued to rely on science, data and experiences from other jurisdictions to sustain and modify its strategy in the fight against Covid-19, Mustapha said arrangements would be made for exiting (graduating) students in JSS3 and SS3 to resume at both boarding and day schools as soon as possible for intensive revision exercises.

All education establishments, he said, must conduct exhaustive reviews to ensure compliance with guidelines. Arrangements would also be made for students taking part in the NABTEB, BECE, WAEC and NECO examinations to resume school. In approving the resumption of graduating classes, the PFT said water must be provided in schools for hand-washing and students and teachers must wear face masks while observing social distancing. In addition, all schools must comply with the recommended steps and measures issued by the Federal Ministry of Education. Teachers, he said, could resume work, as they were considered to be essential staff.

But the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) and the Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT) were not amused. They condemned the Federal Government’s “safe reopening of schools”, noting that the directive for graduating classes to resume was  badly thought out, and could expose teachers and students to  coronavirus. According to the NMA president, Professor Innocent Ujah, it is risky to ask pupils to resume given the current low level of compliance by Nigerians with  Covid-19 safety protocols. Ujah said  teachers and students wearing face masks might not breathe well,  particularly  if not used to them or wearing substandard ones, adding that there would be difficulties in observing social distancing in  crowded classrooms. On his part, the NUT General Secretary, Mike Ene, accused the government of playing politics with the directive. He wondered how teachers who had not been paid salaries in some states would get money to buy personal protective equipment.  He said teachers could not resume because nobody wanted to die. The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has also spoken against the move.

To all intents and purposes, the ‘reopening’ of schools amid the increasing number of Covid-19 infections in the country is suspect. It is shocking that the government took a decision of such magnitude without consulting with and factoring in the inputs of stakeholders such as the NUT, Parent Teachers Association (PTA) and the NMA. While its desire to see that graduating students write their examinations is in order, it ought to have considered the fact that the situation it seeks to confront is a global one, and thus be more cautious in approach. But perhaps more importantly, the partial reopening of schools raises the persistent issue of the parlous state of infrastructure in the schools. While the reopening of schools for only graduating students could indeed enhance social distancing given the large space that would be made available for such students to use, the fact is that most public schools in the country lack pipe-borne water, or indeed any source of water supply. Toilets, where available at all, are an eyesore, and it remains to be seen how the government hopes to confront these challenges even with the latest measures. If schools are to reopen safely, the government must provide water, face masks and hand sanitizers, while also ensuring social distancing in the schools. It must also provide adequate medical facilities.

A careful analysis of the PFT’s position shows that it is essentially a list of thou-shall-nots. But making laws without providing facilities that would aid the achievement of the real objective of those laws, namely curbing the spread of Covid-19, amounts to an exercise in futility. As we noted in previous editorials, even the lockdown imposed at the onset of Covid-19 in the country was not carefully thought out, as provisions were not made for citizens who would be cash-strapped and hungry because many live from hand to mouth. Even the PTF complained of violation of inter-state movement by security agencies. And once the lockdown was eased, there was a surge in activities, with banking halls becoming overwhelmed by customers seeking to transact business. We also noted that the structure of the Nigerian society over time did not predispose the citizenry to respecting rules and regulations because the rulers and public officials had acquired notoriety for breaking the rules and regulations they made. Worse still, there was no commitment to addressing the situation of workers in the informal sector who had lost their sources of livelihood.

Given the foregoing, we urge the government to interface with the NUT, NMA and other stakeholders, in order to truly ensure safe reopening of schools. The reopening of schools would remain ineffective if the NUT is not interested in it. At the same time, however, we urge the unions to come up with suggestions, especially since schools cannot remain closed forever. They must work closely with the government to ensure that normalcy is restored in the schools as soon as possible.

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