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EDUCATION

As Students Return To School Amid Pandemic

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On March 19, 2020 the federal government ordered the closure of schools nationwide over the outbreak of the deadly virus. Four months after, relief has finally come for students as exit classes set to resume Monday. HENRY TYOHEMBA writes.

Amid lingering safety concerns over the novel coronavirus, Nigerian students in exit classes will finally return to classrooms on Monday 3, 2020, beginning the process of school normalization in the country.

The spread of coronavirus disease in Nigeria continues to record significant increase. As of Friday, the total number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 provided by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) was 42,689 with 878 deaths and 19270 discharged.

Despite the rise, calls to reopen schools continue to grow in the past few weeks and on July 27 federal government ordered secondary schools in the country to reopen as from 3rd of August 2020 for exit classes after an unanimous decisions were reached at a virtual meeting between the Federal Ministry of education, Honorable Commissioners of Education of the 36 states, the Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT), proprietors of private schools and Chief Executives of examination bodies.

The gathering agreed that classes should resume immediately after the Sallah break to enable students prepare for WAEC and other national exam bodies. Without delay, another gathering was convened, releasing a comprehensive schedule for various national examinations for exit classes spanning from 17th August to 18th November, 2020.

Education Minister, Chukwuemeka Nwajuiba said Tuesday in Abuja after the conference that West African Examinations Council, (WAEC-SSCE) will start on the 17th of August, 2020 while  the  National Business and Technical Examination Board, (NABTEB) examinations will start on the 21st September and end by 15th October, 2020.

In his words; “Other details of the schedule indicate that the Senior Secondary School Certificate Examinations, (SSCE) for SS3, conducted by NECO will start on the 5th of October and end on 18th of November, 2020. The Basic Education Certificate Examinations, (BECE) for JSS 3 also conducted by NECO, will start on the 24th of August and end on the 7th of September, 2020.

“Furthermore, the National Common Entrance Examination, (NCEE) which is a one-day NECO examination for intending applicants into Unity Colleges (JSS1) will run in-between the Senior Secondary Certificate Examinations i.e. on Saturday, 17th October, 2020. Registration for the NECO (SSCE), which is on-going, will end on the 10th of September, 2020 and there shall be no extension for the registration whatsoever.

“For the one – day National Common Entrance Examination conducted by NECO, it is compulsory for parents and pupils to wear face masks on the exam date, while also carrying along with them, alcohol-based sanitisers.

He further revealed that the National Board for Arabic and Islamic Studies, (NBAIS) examination will commence on Wednesday, 23rd September and end by 17th October, 2020 while directing all examination bodies to release details of their examination timetables in the next seven days.

While parents and other stakeholders commended the decision to reopen schools for exit classes, the announcement came with disappointment to some health experts, prominent of which is the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA). They feared for pupils’ safety because of the COVID-19 pandemic, saying that the government is not sufficiently prepared to ensure that pupils do not contract the virus.

NMA president, Professor Innocent Ujah, said while it is good that the children should not be kept at home forever, it is also unwise to expose them to danger.“At the moment we have not been told what new thing they have done, either governments, private schools or the proprietors to ensure the safety of the students. It is only the living that goes to school.

“Nobody knows the course of COVID-19, but then we need to be prepared. We must be very cautious and we must temporise (avoid making a decision or committing oneself in order to gain time). If the students are going to school, how are we prepared to ensure that they are protected from COVID-19? We need to be told in clear terms.

“The same parents that have been crying that their children should resume school will be the same people to criticise the government – that the government has not put anything in place and their children are dying. At that stage, the government will be brought to ridicule. So, we need to be very careful and balance our agitations in such a way that it does not unduly affect our children,” he was quoted saying.

Ujah added; “Adults are not complying with the basic guidelines and protocols on hand washing, use of sanitizers, face masks and social distancing. Even those that are supposed to be the leaders are not observing it. Therefore, it is clearly obvious that we have failed in the social distancing component of the protocol.

“The NMA is saying that we need to be cautious and temporise. However, the government has taken a decision and the government will carry the responsibility of whatever happens to the children. Both Federal and state governments must be prepared to take on responsibility for whatever happens to any of them.”

Before the pronouncement of school resumption, another wing of medical experts, Paediatric Association of Nigeria (PAN) warned against reopening of schools, stressing that COVID-19 is still on the rise. PAN cautioned against reopening of schools as the virus due to the upward spike of the virus in the country, with no scientifically reliable vaccine available to treat patients.

The President of the association, Professor Edward Alikor said, “As a professional association whose fundamental objective is to ‘actively seek the well-being of children and ensure that their right to quality health care is protected,’ Paediatric Association of Nigeria views it as a professional responsibility to publicly express its opinion in the ongoing national discourse.”

The association noted the announcements and shifts in dates for resumption of schools by the federal government and said the possible date of September for reopening of schools would not be in the best interest of children and the nation.

PAN said its position was based currently on the consistent scientific facts about COVID-19 published and accepted by the scientific community; the fact that these scientific facts are rapidly evolving and changing; the trend in the incidence of COVID-19 infection in Nigeria; the recognition that children need structured school environment for optimal learning and realisation of their full potentials.

But other unions in the education sector have expressed satisfaction with the resumption. The  Secretary-General of Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT), Mike Ene in a recent interview after the pronouncement said teachers are ready to return to the classrooms provided that the government do the needful – fumigate the schools, provide protective materials, which according to him all the commissioners assured to do during the meeting.

Similarly, the National Parent Teacher Association of Nigeria (NAPTAN) also hailed the decision. Its President, Haruna Danjuma, said the association was ready to provide what is needed to keep pupils safe. “We are very happy to hear from the Federal Government. It is now left to us to prepare and meet up with the guidelines. We are very much okay and we are happy with that,” he said.

Prior to federal government resolution, the debate to reopen schools had intensified in the past weeks, putting pressure on the government to declare on June 29 that it was considering the safe reopening of schools to allow students in graduating classes to resume in person in preparation for examination only for the Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu announcing later that it will no longer be possible for students to prepare for or participate in any examination, including the external ones.

Instead, the federal government reversed its decision and listed out conditions to school owners to meet before reopening. Schools were given until July 29th, 2020 to comply by government conditions and undertake self-assessment and send feed back to state Ministries of education before meeting with relevant stakeholders to review the situation and decide on a specific date for reopening.

On the occasion, the National Association of Proprietors of Private Schools (NAPPS) told LEADERSHIP Sunday of its keenness to resume back to classes. Their clamour for resumption followed the withdrawal of Nigeria’s participation in the sub-regional examination by the Federal Government over safety reasons.

But to the president, Colleges of Education Academic Staff Union (COEASU), Nuhu Ogirima such was not a perfect idea. Bringing the children back to schools to him will increase the rate of infection in the country.

“Resumption is not feasible as we speak. Why is it not feasible? Let us look at the implication of resumption on three grounds. One, let’s address our minds to what implication of resumption will be on the learner, on the instructor, on the lecturer and even on government itself. We can afford to lose a section or even two than lose a child once you lost a child it cannot be replaced. Two, if we say students should resume because some of us are too conscious this western education forgetting the fact that education is the totality of the acquisition of knowledge that a person acquires and as they are home now they are acquiring education.

He continued; “It has provided opportunity for them to actually maximize the opportunities of informal education. If you take the risk and bring in the children you will be increasing the infection rate in the country. The kind of education that will run in Nigeria is such that everybody comes from all walks of life you cannot identify who carries COVID-19, who is COVID-19 positive. Look at the rate of tests, ideally based on what they said we are supposed to test a percentage of our population but we are not even near 0.1 because it is less than two hundred thousand in a population of about 200,000000 you need at least two million, that is one percent of the population.

“So in a situation where you bring all the students, if a student is infected you have to quarantine the entire class, then what happens to the lecturer? And on the side of the students what kind of facilities exist to? Most of the hostels are poorly ventilated, you don’t have power supply regularly to provide the ventilation that may be required because of use of the fans that may not be utilize even the sanitary situation of the schools is not good so by the time you bring in students at the end of the day it become threat to government. Now from the update we are getting it is airborne, what happen if you bring in thousands of students meanwhile, a course can take 2,3-4000 that a lecturer will have to address, you have a clumsy situation there it suggest that the rate of pollution of the environment will increase so you will be putting everybody at risk. Now if you decide to disinfect.

On the contrary, the National Association Of Private School Teachers (NAPST) urged government to consider the plight of private school teachers and reopen schools, saying that it is easier to open schools than markets which have been allowed to operate.

National president of the association, Akhigbe Olumhense told our correspondent that the fear to reopen schools mostly is not from the private sector but from the public schools, adding that private schools are ready to take up the challenge.

“We said it clearly that we want schools to reopen but with the condition that those safety protocols be put in place and you can agree with me that the moment government announced that the graduating classes should go back to schools immediately the private schools were ready. In fact, if you see the way children were coming to school with their gadgets in preparation showed that from day one facilities were procured and you know private schools is a private business they can actually do these things.

“But I know that the fear mostly is not from the private sector, we from day one are ready, children can actually be controlled, the hand washing and all the guidelines can be enforced in private schools but I think the delay is from public schools and that is why we are calling on government to see how you can help provide those things so that we can resume together.”

Adding, the National Vice President of the association, Comrade Ogunlana Rahman Hassan said; “To control the situation in school is much easier than in schools and markets are opened the crowd in the markets cannot be compared the schools. If the government give us go ahead to reopen we are ready to reopen and make sure we put all the necessary protocols and ensure that there is social distancing in order to curb the pandemic.”

Earlier, countering the clamour by some interest groups for the reopening of schools, Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) cautioned against the reopening of schools, insisting that it’s not ripe for schools to reopen.

ASUU’s National President, Prof Biodun Ogunyemi, made his position known recently while featuring on Channels Television’s programme, Sunrise Daily. He said reopening schools across the federation amidst the COVID-19 pandemic could endanger the lives of poor Nigerian pupils.

Ogunyemi was quoted saying: “What we are trying to do now is a crash model – an experimental approach. We want to experiment with the lives of poor Nigerians – children of the poor. Many of us in my bracket – maybe middle class – our children don’t fall into that category. And that is probably why we cannot appreciate why we need to do the basic minimum.

“Are we saying that we should open schools without decontaminating the schools? For a government that could go openly to decontaminate streets, to decontaminate markets? Are lives in the schools not as valuable as those working on the streets? We need to do the basic minimum. It is not about income for teachers, income for workers here – it’s about what we need to do to avert disaster.”

He further said in another interview that Nigerian universities may not be reopened even if the federal government orders the resumption of all schools amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

But countering ASUU, Private universities in Nigeria few days ago asked federal government to permit them to reopen for academic activities amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In a letter they addressed to the National Universities Commission (NUC), the universities warned that the continuous closure of universities could hamper the productive future of students.

The universities through the Committee of Vice-Chancellors of Private Universities (CVCPU) warned that the academic calendar would be seriously affected if universities remain closed beyond one more month. According to the vice-chancellors, the continuous closure of the universities could hamper the productive future of students.

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