BY Osita Chidoka
She is sick. She has been throwing up and have abdominal pains, she needs to see a Doctor as the school clinic can’t handle the situation again” said my wife as she reported our second daughter’s ill health in January. She was a form 2 students of Queens College Lagos and suffered the symptoms of what turned out to be an outbreak of water-borne disease that led to tragic consequences. Praise Sodipo, Vivian Osuinyi and Bithia Itulua, all students of Queen’s College, had died from the epidemic and the nation dulled to the value of human life released the statistics as if they were another set of victims of terrorism or car crash.
In 2014, my first daughter passed her National Common Entrance Examination after making the Anambra cut-off point at a second attempt, ending her stay at the French School at Abuja where she started her nursery education through primary 6. We had decided to send our children to the French school as part of our long-term plan to make them bilingual in a country surrounded by francophone countries. During my tenure as President of West African Road Safety Organisation I was more convinced that Nigeria should make more effort in learning French as most of the top government functionaries I met in the francophone countries could speak passable English. Predictably, the Nigerian team, myself included, could not communicate in the most rudimentary French. I digress.
On the day, I took my first daughter to Queens School, I did so with a lot of will as friends and family could not understand why I was sending her to a public school with all the infrastructural challenges and poor environment. It was hard. Thanks to my wife who I shared a similar worldview about the importance of public schools in building character, resilience and balanced view of life. I fundamentally oppose any education system that encourages segregation by income and not ability. Private schools should exist but must include a percentage of students admitted by academic ability and not ability to pay. Equal opportunities and equal access are key issues in the education sector.
In 2015, my second daughter joined her sister at Queens College and I looked forward to their graduation from the historic college despite glaring issues. During their stay, I saw how no agency of government cared about overcrowding. The fire service that should make regulations about occupancy rates in public buildings were nowhere to be found. The state ministry of health raised their hands in exasperation as the school refused to abide by state sanitary and health regulations. My daughters talked about “pounding”, the process of flushing filled and overflowing toilets due to non-functioning flushing system. Their refectory food would not provide enough protein for growing teenagers. Efforts by the Parents Teachers Association to remedy the situation was received with mixed feelings by the authorities. The old girl’s association made commendable effort to avert the eventual tragedy.
I persisted in leaving my children at Queens College because despite the challenges in the environment the school results appeared impressive to me. A look at their result showed a highly competitive academic environment where 80 per cent score saw you at the middle or lower percentile of the class. The teachers I met during my various visits appeared dedicated and committed to the academic success of the girls. The teachers at QC did not have the misaligned incentives of private school teachers and owners whose focus is on financial bottom line against long-term learning. More importantly, for my wife and I we saw our children develop a wide network of friends from all strata of society and become more empathetic to their fellow human beings. On one occasion, my daughters were on excursion to Ghana by Bus to Achimota College, some of their schoolmates could not afford the fees for the excursion. She called me and begged that I pay for two classmates whose parents couldn’t afford the trip. Our plan for them to be local while embracing the global was working out well as I strongly owe my success in public life to my experiences from Union Secondary School through University of Nigeria. Their future is tied to our homeland as nature did not bring them here by accident, I believe that our local experiences, food, weather, culture and values provide the best manure for their flowering as human beings. My first daughter had already started “shadowing” a Prefect position.
All these were frustrated when the health crisis at Queens College turned deadly. According to the Lagos State Commissioner of Health, Jide Idris, in a news report “Two students (eventually Three) have died since the outbreak of water-borne diseases in the school, with more than 50 others currently on admission in the school’s clinic after eating spaghetti and drinking water in the refectory.
“The results from the two laboratories showed high bacteria content in the water samples from kitchen, behind dining hall and Queens Delight, the school water factory. The bacteria range from Coliforms, Escherichia coli, Salmonella, Klebsiella ozoana, and Aeromonas hydrophilia. The total number of students who presented at the clinic on account of abdominal pain, fever, vomiting and diarrhoea was 1,222 from the first date of presentation (11/01/17) to the last date of presentation (15/02/17).
“Specimens collected from 40 kitchen workers revealed that cysts of Entamoeba histolytica were isolated in the stool of 23 food handlers; Salmonella Paratyphi, the causative agent of Typhoid Fever, was also isolated from three food handlers. The infection was most likely spread through contaminated water sources and infection by food handlers.”
The question is, who is responsible for student’s health and safety in schools both public and private? Minister of Education for federal schools and Commissioner of education for states? Do we have standards for school buildings? Does fire service evaluate school premises to ensure compliance to safety standards? Do we have a manual for inspecting boarding schools that include ratio of toilets/bathrooms per student? Any safety system designed for schools with clear roles and responsibilities for teachers, principal and zonal inspectors? In the event of failure who takes responsibility? Principal/Head Teacher? Minister/Commissioner? Permanent Secretary/zonal Inspector?
adly, my daughters are leaving QC as I can’t argue about life and death situation. However, Queens College tragedy demands that somebody is held accountable and punished. More importantly, a school physical and health inspection audit manual should be developed and all schools in the country audited. Identified gaps should be closed within agreed timeframe otherwise school should be shut down. Education Trust Fund and Universal Basic Education Commission can help in developing manual and funding the audit.
Finally, I think the Minister of Education should take responsibility for the Queens College deaths and show more than cursory interest to the health and safety of our next generation. Taking strong measures and creating system will ensure that Praise, Vivian and Bithia did not in vain, like in other climes a day should be set aside as health day in their memory as a loud acclamation of never again should students under government care die needlessly.