By Nike Yetunde Ijaiya
SINCE the Coronavirus pandemic intruded into human private and public space, a lot has been said about its highly contagious and deadly nature. We have been told about how it spreads from person to person by touch, and droplets of infected persons. The best solution, for now, we are told, is prevention through social distancing, wearing of face masks and proper personal hygiene. The lockdown, meant to contain the spread of the pandemic, has adversely affected so many critical areas of human existence, from global to national and individual economy, businesses, health, education, worship, international relations, family life and politics not to talk of loss of lives in thousands.
As the effects bite harder, citizens became worried of their means of livelihood and hence the clamour for re-opening of the economy, after all people must eat to be strong to face the pandemic. Leaders of churches and mosques joined in the clamour for worship places to be re-opened for prayers. Amidst this loud noise, re-opening of schools was the least heard. No clamour. Is it out of fear of the pandemic in schools? Is it because parents are comfortable with having their children at home? Both are possibilities and rightly so. As it is, the fear of Coronavirus may be the beginning of wisdom judging by its records in the US, UK, Spain, and other epicenters of the pandemic. Parents are quiet and schools are equally docile in the matter that concerns their existence. We are being told that Covid-19 would not disappear in one day and we just have to live with it like the other viruses (HIV, Ebola) and protect ourselves, meaning self- preservation.
Out of fear, can we lock down our schools indefinitely or delay the re-opening much longer while waiting for the pandemic to subside? It is a heavy decision for many reasons. Shutting down schools for much longer would have grave consequences on our nation and communities. Frustration, youth restiveness and crime rates would increase; the educational system would lag behind international standard, etc. When the lockdown is fully withdrawn and workers return to work, who would look after the children at home?
However, only healthy people can go to school. Markets should not be compared with schools when it comes to the spread of Covid-19. With the situation in our schools at all levels most especially the public ones, which are in the majority, social distancing is impossible. Nursery and primary school pupils cannot be expected to do it or wear face masks throughout the day. The secondary school ones may be more cooperative but what about the overcrowded classrooms? Adolescents are said to be rebellious to control. What about the hostels in tertiary institutions?
What about the teachers, caregivers, non-teaching staff? Are they not entertaining fears? It is only fair that they do because of their own safety and that of their family. Caution and more time to plan are necessary before re-opening of all educational institutions if only because teachers are adults that could become victims. Even though the students’ age groups are said to be least affected by the pandemic according to the US data shown by the CNN recently, it is not yet confirmed whether they could be carriers or not. Everything should be done to ensure that our schools do not become epicentres of the pandemic and our teachers turned to ‘front-liners/victims’ without the ‘armour’in the fight against it.
In spite of this fear, something has to be done for schools to resume. Of great significance is the re-opening of our educational institutions. If you destroy education, you destroy humanity. So it is time for all well-meaning Nigerians to speak up on the side of education especially to assist the government on possible strategies to adopt in the re-opening of schools without upsurge in the spread of the pandemic. In Nigeria, the challenges of our public schools are worrisome already without the Covid-19 pandemic, from overcrowded classrooms to poor sitting arrangement, stuffy classrooms, poor infrastructure, poor hygiene, shortage of classrooms and teachers. There are classes with 50 to 150 students especially in big towns and cities. Pupils are sitting on mats and bare floors in some schools. How do we manage that in the face of the pandemic? How many states established new secondary schools in the last 10 years to accommodate the population explosion from UBE schools?
When schools re-open, will it be business as usual? With the pandemic on rampage, it should not be. Will class size remain the same in large schools? Will sitting arrangement be the same of two, three or more children sitting on the same bench and managing one desk or table? Will classroom arrangement be the same, neck to neck, with the teacher squeezed to the narrow space left in front? Will pupils still sit on the floor and observe social distancing? Can we be sure that children would observe self-preservation? With all the education given on the pandemic, how much of it can we say reach the children? How many parents understand the pandemic beyond collecting palliatives? How much of the pandemic do teachers take time to understand? Equally important is our school curriculum- should it remain the same in the light of the new global challenges? I think a new order would eventually emerge that our much criticized school curriculum would not be able to match. Technology would play its part but possibly much stronger. What would be the role of parents and teachers when schools re-open? Would the methods of teaching be the same?
A number of private schools tried online lessons for their pupils. It worked mainly because the parents are city-dwellers where internet facilities are available and they could assist their children. What about public schools, illiterate parents and rural dwellers? In any case online lessons cannot take the place of face-to-face teaching in the education of young citizens and so inevitable.
The PTF has been considering some strategies along the line of staggered re-opening of schools. It is high time the ministries of education, schools, parents, the public and teachers’ unions assisted the government on suggestions. Parents and education workers would no doubt have apprehension or reservations considering what happened to some health workers. They need to be assured. Among possible strategies to consider along the line of staggered/ gradual approach as suggested by the PTF, is starting with SS3 students who are due for public examinations. But a systematic approach may be necessary to adopt:
First, the ministries of education may need to call for accurate data on number of students/pupils per class to determine the sitting arrangement in the face of social distancing. It would also help to determine whether there is a need for staggered classes as per morning and afternoon shifts. Towards that end, each school including the tertiary ones, can be mandated to prepare a draft of how they would manage social distancing and other aspects to prevent any spread of the pandemic. Second, before the students resume, teachers should receive thorough orientation on Covid-19 to allay their fears and to take precautions seriously as well as for information on what to do if they suspect a case. Third, when the students resume, presumably SS3 students first, the first few days should be spent on the same orientation on Covid-19 pandemic. There should be no assumption that they know.
Meanwhile the State Covid-19 Committees would have to be actively involved in monitoring developments in schools. There could be sub-committees at the LGA level for prompt action. This strategy would help to build parents’ confidence that their children and homes are safe from the pandemic.
In addition, schools would need some palliatives (not just food): more good teachers, classrooms, chairs and desks, sanitizers, soap, regular water supply, face masks, wash-hand bowls, towels, clean toilets etc. These are simple things that should normally be provided in schools. Large classes and schools have to be de-congested. More public schools need to be established in the nearest future. These call for serious emergency funding of education just like the health sector.
Prof Ijaiya is a former deputy vice-chancellor, University of Ilorin.