The date for the resumption of schools in Nigeria has remained uncertain due to the ravaging effects of COVID-19 pandemic. While health experts and some other stakeholders hold varying views on the issue, the reality is that COVID-19 has become the new normal. Hence, there is need to reflect that reality in the lives of the people. We recall that the Federal Government shut down these schools since March 2020 to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the country. But on August 4, 2020, graduating students resumed to write the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) which started August 17. Junior Secondary School 3 students also resumed to write the National Examination Council (NECO) exams. Some states like Lagos later went further to announce dates for resumption of all schools.
Recently, the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 warned against full reopening of schools. Though school children have stayed long at home, the PTF is of the view that schools cannot be reopened at the expense of their lives. It urged states that intended to do so to be guided by the experiences of United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany and some others where reopening of schools in some cities led to more confirmed cases and fatalities of the pandemic.
According to the PTF Chairman and Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha, a good number of countries that relaxed restrictions are re-introducing more stringent measures due to resurgence of the virus. While quoting a recent publication by the Weekly Science Review which indicated that Africa had recorded as low as just five per cent of the global confirmed cases and three per cent of deaths, Mustapha cautioned that “the science, data and experience from other parts of the world indicate that such data should be viewed with extreme caution, as it is prone to be very deceptive and could be misleading.”
Besides, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has warned against the reopening of schools especially universities. ASUU’s stand is that reopening the universities will further expose students to grave danger. As far as the union is concerned, it would be practically impossible for students to observe the safety protocols such as safe distancing in the public universities that lack basic infrastructure and where lecture halls and hostels are overcrowded. Even before the closure of schools over COVID-19, ASUU had been on strike. Some of its demands include welfare issues, better funding of universities and abrogation of Integrated Payroll Personnel Information System (IPPIS) in the universities. Government usually enters into agreement with it but often reneges on it.
A few months ago, the Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) also faulted the government’s initial directive on reopening of schools. They felt the directive could expose teachers and students to danger.
We appreciate the fears of those who caution against reopening of schools. But we believe there is no justification for the continued closure of schools when markets, churches, mosques and some other public places have been reopened. Last month, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF urged African governments to reopen schools. According to them, the prolonged closure of schools has exposed students to poor nutrition, stress, violence, exploitation, childhood pregnancies and challenges in mental development.
So far, about 20 countries have reopened schools in phases with strict compliance to safety measures. Some countries like Sweden and Taiwan did not close down schools at all.
On resumption, we urge staff and students to wear face masks, use hand sanitizers and wash their hands regularly. There is need to provide running water. There should also be regular checking of temperature so that whoever exhibits signs of sickness should be immediately isolated to avoid infecting others.
Although some of the universities may not have adequate infrastructure to support safe distancing, we still think that they should be reopened because they have lost so much ground to incessant strikes. ASUU must come down from its high horse and government should be willing to amicably resolve all outstanding matters with it.
At the same time, let the government consult relevant stakeholders such as the Nigeria Union of Teachers and the Nigeria Medical Association for expert advice before reopening the schools. The earlier the schools are reopened, the better for all the stakeholders.