Peter A. Okebukola
As medical experts forecast, COVID-19, now a pandemic, will downgrade to endemism and, over time, a long time, assaulted by the vaccine, which the world awaits with bated breath, will fade into the background as a major health issue. Mutant strains are said to be in the works and the cycle of such diseases may continue. In the midst of the pandemic, in more than 90 of affected countries, children are asked to stay home. Exposing them to the virus comes with the danger of being casualties and loss of lives of successor generations of the nation’s workforce and leaders. In Nigeria, the stay at home order was issued by the honourable minister of education in March after due consultations with stakeholders and derived from empirical data from Nigeria’s COVID-19 Presidential Task Force (PTF).
Last week, the news that schools would reopen, first for students in external examination classes, junior secondary 3 (JS3) and senior secondary 3 (SS3), was thick in the air. The timetable for the West African Examinations Council’s (WAEC) senior school certificate examination (SSCE) was announced to commence from August 4. Schools claimed compliance with initial guidelines for reopening and all would appear set for the re-entry of the students. By July 13, a detailed set of guidelines, which sync and are fully aligned with international best practices, were published by the federal ministry of education. The expectation is that, upon verified compliance, schools will benefit from phased reopening sometime at a safe future date.
Going back a week, after the Wednesday, July 8, Federal Executive Council meeting, Malam Adamu Adamu, the honourable minister of education, announced that school reopening should tarry, based on verifiable information available to government regarding the inclemency of the environment for schools to reopen. The minister was unwilling to expose schoolchildren to the health hazards associated with COVID-19 when daily updates by PTF present data that the COVID-19 storm was still howling.
I am not a medical expert but the wise counsel of the experts converge that you do not unlock when infection curve is rising. Unlocking has been implicated in the sharp rise of the curve and concomitant elevation of mortality rates. No parent will claim ignorance of the daily rise in the cases of COVID-19. Curiously, some want to gamble the lives of their children to return to school and hurt the health and lives of the children to ensure they sit the WAEC SSCE.
I invite such parents to consider three scenarios to which students in the examination classes (JS3 and SS3) may be plunged. The coronavirus-free child on the way to school in a bus is exposed to asymptomatic coronavirus-carrying conductor or passenger. Even when walking to school, interaction with others en route carries some risks of contracting the virus. Scenario 2 is in school as seen played out in Kenya, Ghana and South Africa. A child is “clean” but has physical, unprotected interaction with teachers and other students who may be infected. The “clean” student at 8.00am now becomes “unclean” at 2.00pm when school closes and returns home, infests the parents who prodded him to school and his or her siblings. Scenario 3 is the case of the student in the boarding house. Expecting young children and adolescents who have not physically seen themselves for three months maintaining safe distance is on the other side of reality. Even if final-year classes resume in August, keeping safe distance where two students sleep on a small bed as typical of choked-up hostels, especially in our public schools, is illusory.
What about the big issue of the SSCE to be conducted by WAEC planned to kick off on August 4? Kick-off date will have to be another day for Nigerian candidates. This is my understanding of the ministerial directive. My deeper understanding, which should be pleasing to the ears of parents, if I score a bull’s eye in the forecast, is that Nigeria can negotiate an out-of-season date for WAEC SSCE, when COVID-19 curve would have flattened sufficiently, the July 13 guidelines are complied with and our children can return safely to school.
In finalising my position on the ministerial directive to keep our children at home for a little longer, I surveyed members of my network all over Africa and found that, in many countries in our region, schools are still shut with outlook to open when the ravaging storm of COVID-19 would have abated to a point for safe return to schools.
In Kenya, schools will remain shut till 2021. In Ghana, where schools were ordered to reopen, spike in COVID-19 in the ministry of education and in schools may trigger massive demonstrations this week and closure of schools. As reported in the JAMB Bulletin, Volume 1, No. 18, of July 13, culled from a creditable South African source, 775 schools in the country have been affected by COVID-19. Reports from the US, as at July 13 monitored on CNN, confirm that about 26 of the states are rolling back the plan to reopen schools.
As we navigate our way along the pathway of reopening our schools, we should note two strands of caveats (public health-related and economy-related) canvassed by some medical experts. On the public health line of reasoning, the experts note the inefficiency of the NPIs (non-pharmaceutical interventions) to control COVID-19. The impact of the measures to control the spread of the infection is said to be debatable as we have been unable to enforce social distancing/isolation, effective lockdowns, use of face masks and so the curve is speeding up rather than flattening. As a result, there is no real rationale for not allowing schools to resume in a controlled manner. Allowing schools to resume is essentially a continuation of the status quo rather than a departure from the current reality.
Also noted is the limited community testing. As the experts observed, it is unlikely that we will soon have the massive testing required to truly begin the process of identifying people with the disease with the aim of focusing on them and thus isolating them. Because it will be tricky to test people in the medium term, how long can we truly withhold people from going about their regular lives, including schools?
If we had a reasonable sense of timing, perhaps we could bide time until such testing was available. We cannot keep people home indefinitely, especially the youth. Thirdly is the inherent resilience of the school-age population. Schoolchildren are not the most vulnerable population and so allowing them to continue schooling may not be as dangerous as allowing our current practice of allowing people who are in the at-risk population to resume work. The mortality and morbidity in children appear less and so may be less consequential than other currently employed measures.
On the economy-related caveat, the experts contend that it is obvious the economic challenges are much more severe than initially anticipated. The education sector is not an exception. Teachers need to be paid, parents also need additional help to keep children busy while they return to work and a myriad of other economic realities. It would be best to get students back to school but do so carefully, for example: having smaller classes, doing basic health checks on students, encouraging sick children to stay home, and use of sanitisers just as being done in offices across the country.
This story is swirling to a happy ending. As I noted earlier, the federal ministry of education, in league with stakeholders, released on July 13 a very comprehensive set of guidelines, which will address the concerns of the medical experts and anxious parents and school proprietors. Verification and enforcement of compliance by the federal and state ministries of education before any school reopens should not be compromised. Under no circumstance should government permit students to plunge into any external examination, especially WAEC SSCE, without at least six weeks of revision when back in school. Not complying with this recommendation will lead to the mother of all examination malpractice and the 2020 SSCE will go down in history as the worst in terms of prevalence of examination malpractice. The e-learning that some schools deployed when children are home, skimmed off many students in rural areas. These students will come back poorly prepared for the SSCE and will indulge brazenly in cheating to pass.
I am convinced that Malam Adamu Adamu, the honourable minister of education, does not want to experiment with the lives of Nigerian children and end up being blamed by the same parents who want their children to rush to the WAEC SSCE examination hall on August 4.
Who says the Nigerian government cannot request WAEC to conduct the SSCE when the environment is clement out of the regular May/June, November/December seasons? Who says that the other West African countries are ready to present their candidates in August/September 2020? Softly, softly, dear colleague parents and grandparents. The lives of our children matter.