Hope of returning to school dimmed for university students yesterday as both senior and junior staff unions of the institutions popped up their plan to embark on strike hours after the federal government ordered full reopening of schools.
Earlier yesterday, minister of Education, Malam Adamu Adamu, had announced federal government’s decision to reopen all schools following a decline in new cases of coronavirus cases in the country six months after they were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But just as stakeholders were commending government’s decision, with calls to abide by the COVID-19 protocols, the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) and the Non- Academic Staff Union (NASU) declared that they would commence their proposed two-week warning strike on Monday across all public universities nationwide.
The two groups jointly declared the industrial action on the platform of the Joint Action Committee (JAC).
Addressing journalists shortly after their joint congress held at the University of Lagos (UNILAG), the chairmen of SSANU and NASU, UNILAG branch, Olusola Sowunmi and Kehinde Ajibade respectively said the strike was general and involve all public universities in the country.
They said the decision was taken to press home their demands on contentious issues from the federal government relating to non-payment of arrears of their national minimum wage for 10 months, inconsistency in the implementation of the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS), non-payment of arrears of their earned allowance since 2012, non-showing of seriousness in renegotiating their 2009 agreement, neglect and poor funding of state universities, corruption and non-constitution of visitation panels as well as a usurpation of headship in non-academic matters by the academic staff.
They said they were ready to commence a full-blown and total strike if the government fails to address these issues while their warning strike lasted, noting that all their members had been mobilised for compliance with the directive.
Confirming the development to LEADERSHIP Weekend, the national public relations officer of SSANU, Salaam Abdussobur said, “There is no going back on the strike.”
In a precautionary move aimed at curtailing the spread of coronavirus in the country, the federal ministry of Education had in March ordered the closure of educational institutions, included tertiary, secondary and primary schools nationwide.
However, government began the process of reopening schools when in August it announced resumption for students of exit classes in secondary school across the nation.
Speaking yesterday, minister of Education, Adamu, said with the number of new daily infections, which peaked at an average of 700 in July and August, now coming down to 200, many states have since ordered the reopening of schools with adherence to covid-19 protocols.
The minister who approved the reopening of the 104 Unity Schools and other education institutions in the country urged states and private school owners to work out the modalities for the reopening of schools under their purview.
At a briefing in Abuja yesterday, Adamu said the decision was taken after due consultation with the presidential task force on COVID-19 following the declining rate of coronavirus cases.
The minister urged school owners to put in place systems that meet the COVID-19 protocols.
He listed the protocols to include “safe distancing procedures developed and displayed at schools, simple context-specific reference protocols on day to day actions to be operated in each school, conduct risk assessment with a view to understanding the gaps in the system that can increase the risk of transmission and make recommendations for addressing the gaps.
“Safety and hygiene in all stages and phases of the school reopening process which promote behaviors that reduce spread, such as school commutes (to and from school travelling), safe distancing, frequent hand washing and the use of facemasks.
“Sensitization and monitoring procedures and ensure adequate Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) facilities across the school premises, encouraging use of open spaces for gathering and promoting outdoor activities.
“There should be regular temperature checks for all the visitors coming into the schools using infrared thermometers and establish a staff/students committee for regular surveillance, monitoring and enforcement of COVID-19 guidelines,” he added.
Adamu warned that any school owner that violates the guidelines leading to an outbreak in the school risks closure of his or her school.
“Be vigilant, strict and rigid in the implementation of COVID-19 protocols for the safety of our children and ourselves as we reopen schools,” he stressed.
He said government has not rested on its oars in the areas of consultation with stakeholders, putting together guidelines for reopening of schools and preparations required of school owners to reopen.
He stated: “We have consulted widely with stakeholders in the sector, including the Association of Private School Owners of Nigeria, (APSON), National Association of Proprietors of Private Schools, (NAPPS), Provost of Colleges of Education, Rectors of Polytechnics, Vice Chancellors of Universities, State Governors, our development partners, Honourable Commissioners of Education and relevant international organisations.
“Consequent upon these consultations, we developed detailed guidelines for reopening our learning facilities. Taking the first step, we reopened schools for exit classes to take their National Examinations.
“I am glad to report that in all our 104 Unity Colleges, there has not been a single case of COVID-19 infection so far. The isolated cases we have had in other schools are minimal.”
The minister also noted that there has not been a single fatality among the exit students, adding that the decision to reopen schools became necessary as infection curve nationwide has flattened considerably.
He continued: “In July 2020 when I stated that we will not reopen schools until the infection curve flattens, the country was recording an average of 400 infections daily.
“By the end of July and August, the infection rate peaked at an average of 700 cases daily. Since the beginning of September 2020, we have witnessed a considerable decline in the rate of infections now averaging 200 recorded cases daily.
“Consequently, with the level of preparations put to test and the flattening of the infection curve, we have come to the conclusion that we have to review our earlier decision especially against the realization that COVID-19 has come to stay and that we have to live with it.”
Reacting to the federal government’s directive for all schools to reopen, the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA) said compliance with NCDC’s protocol was important.
NMA president, Dr Innocent Ujah, in a chat with LEADERSHIP Weekend, said, “Schools have reopened long time ago. They did WAEC, we now have what we use as pilot study and probably it is established now that the schools can reopen because the minister said not many people were infected but we know that there were some reported cases. The problem is that we don’t know how long COVID-19 will continue; nobody knows. Now, the question that comes to mind is how long are we going to wait? I don’t think anybody can answer that.
“So, the aspect that I like in the minister’s speech is that people must observe the NCDC protocol and if any school fails to observe it, the school will be shut down. I think that is the right thing because we don’t know how long COVID will stay.
“The borders have been opened; airlines are flying. It is not a straight forward answer because nobody has the answer except God. The issue of compliance is very important.”
Also reacting to the development, the National Association of Private School Teachers (NAPST) commended government for taking the decision to reopen schools, just as it urged authorities to look into supporting schools financially.
The national president of the association, Akhigbe Olumhense, who spoke in an interview with LEADERSHIP Weekend, said some schools cannot survive without the government support.
He said, “Yes, it is a very welcome development and we really commend it. We think there is no need to continue to keep the children at home this very special time.
“It is necessary for government to support private schools you know have different categories of private schools, there are some that will not need any support but those ones that are medium and the low cost there is need for government to actually provide support for them so that it will encourage them to put in place all there measures, bearing in mind that in the past six months these schools have not been making money.
“I know there is this COVID-19 survival fund that the government is working in but what the schools needs now is urgent.”
On their part, the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) lauded the decision but expressed worry over failure of federal government to resolve issues with Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), thus hindering university students from returning to classes.
National president of the students’ body, Comrade Danielson Akpan, pleaded with government to resolve issues with the union to enable student resume on the given date.
“It is a welcome development. Ordinarily it is something we should have done long ago but it concerns health of people but now that government has deemed it fit to reopen schools we welcome it because we are tired of staying at home.
“Now that schools are resuming, federal government and ASUU should resolve the crisis immediately. What we are saying is calling on government to immediately look into the agreement it had with ASUU and implement it so that they can reopen schools for higher education students”.
Meanwhile, the Academic Staff Union of Colleges of Education (COEASU) has cautioned schools to strictly abide by COVID-19 protocols as they resume in order to avoid further spread of coronavirus.
National president of COEASU, Nuhu Ogirima, who spoke with our correspondent charged government and educational instructions to ensure all the protocols are followed.
He said, “If they have not met those conditions by ensuring that COVID-19 protocols are followed it will be endangering the lives of people. We have made it clear of what is required; if they think they have adequately taken care of it, fine. It is left for the schools to determine the extent of government making sure that all those things we believe are required are met.
“I understand the fact that we cannot also keep our children at home indefinitely. When you look at the rate of infection in our country it is not as explosive as we were witnessing.
“I believe that by the time they put COVID-19 protocols in place we should be able to contain that and I’m saying that based on the experience of WAEC we have had you known there is no serious incidence as we have envisaged so with that I think we can go ahead”.