Mixed feelings had greeted the recent lifting of the ban on interstate travels/domestic flights and partial reopening of schools across Nigeria. Government’s initial action was necessitated by the need to curtail the spread of the dreaded COVID-19 pandemic. But it was obvious that people observed government’s order in the breach, thereby making a mess of the whole exercise.
In announcing the lifting of the ban in Abuja recently, the Chairman of the Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19, Boss Mustapha, and the PTF Coordinator, Dr. Sani Aliyu, noted the extension of the second phase of the relaxed lockdown by four weeks beginning from June 30, 2020 to midnight of July 27, 2020. Also, with the exception of Primary 6, Junior Secondary 3 and Senior Secondary 3 students who will resume and prepare for their examinations, all schools remain closed until further evaluation.
Stakeholders in the transport and aviation industry hailed the government’s action. This is understandable given that while the ban lasted, transporters and airline operators lost billions of naira. It was estimated that the airlines, for instance, were losing about N17 billion monthly due to the lockdown. Planes were also grounded, necessitating that they would have to be certified fit before they could fly again. On their part, some road transport companies also lost billions of naira to the pandemic. Some of them bought new buses with borrowed funds but had to ground the buses due to the lockdown. Lifting of the ban on interstate travels must have been a huge relief for them.
With the lifting of the earlier restriction, it is in the best interest of transporters and airlines to ensure that the laid down safety protocols are strictly observed at all times. This is because any further ban on their operations will seriously affect them. Transport companies should ensure that their vehicles carry half their capacities. Everybody has to take personal responsibility knowing that there is no cure or vaccine yet for the disease.
It is in the reopening of schools that some stakeholders have expressed some reservations. The Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), for instance, faulted the government’s directive on the issue. According to them, the directive was badly thought-out and could expose teachers and pupils to danger. The NMA President, Prof. Innocent Ujah, reportedly said it was risky to ask pupils to resume given the current low level of compliance by Nigerians with COVID-19 safety protocols.
“At the moment, many schools don’t even have water. Obviously, it becomes very difficult to say that schools should reopen because you have to wash your hands regularly,” Ujah said. He wondered how teachers would teach with face masks and all pupils would also wear face masks.
We appreciate the concerns of the NMA, the NUT and some other organisations and individuals. Rather than abate, COVID-19 cases have been on a frightening rise in the country in recent times. So far, Nigeria has recorded over 30,000 cases and over 660 deaths. Nevertheless, schools can’t remain closed forever. Across the world, governments are mapping out strategies to safely reopen schools and off-set educational damage caused by COVID-19. In the United Kingdom, for instance, part of the plan, as recently reported by The Telegraph of London, was that pupils would have to repeat parts of the previous school year.
It is imperative to also note that it is not only Nigeria that takes the West African Examination Council (WAEC) examinations. If schools don’t reopen, it means they may lose a year and may also run the risk of not taking the WASSCE examinations. Thus, we support the safe reopening of schools so that students in exit classes can partake in external exams as explained by the Federal Government. Without taking the examinations, the students cannot progress to the next class.
Therefore, we enjoin the government to put necessary parameters in place to protect the teachers, the students as well as travellers. The government, in conjunction with school authorities must provide places for washing of hands as well as personal protective equipment such as hand sanitizers, face masks, and other necessary items to both teachers and students if they must resume. They should also have the temperature of the students checked regularly.
State governments should consider compelling schools to ban assemblies and sports whenever schools partially reopen. Provision should also be made for spaces such that students will have to limit physical contact during classes. The government should consult with the NUT, the NMA and other relevant stakeholders, with a view to ironing out some grey areas before schools are reopened.