Finally, Nigerian schools will reopen from August 4, 2020, for exiting students in primary and secondary schools. The Federal Government, after a crucial meeting with stakeholders, found it expedient to let senior secondary school (SSS3) students participate in this year’s West African Examinations Council (WAEC) examinations. Primary 6 pupils are also to write the Common Entrance examination. Government made a U-turn from the earlier position that Nigerian students in Federal Government-owned secondary schools would not participate in the examination, a decision that raised some controversies.
Having discussed with stakeholders in the education sector, the government perhaps saw the light and came to the realisation that making Nigerian students lose one year, by absenting from an examination taken by students of all West African countries, would set the country back. It, therefore, announced that SSS3 students would return to school on August 4 and have 13 days to prepare for the WASSCE, commencing on August 17. The Federal Ministry of Education, in a statement by director of press and information, Bem Goong, said: “Students will have two weeks within which to prepare for the West African examinations (WAEC) due to start on the 17th of August, 2020. These were the unanimous decisions reached today (July 27, 2020) at a virtual consultative meeting between the Federal Ministry of Education, honourable commissioners of education of the 36 states, the Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT), the proprietors of private schools, and chief executives of examination bodies.
“It was agreed that the exiting classes should resume immediately after the Sallah break, from the 4th of August, 2020, to enable them prepare for the WAEC examinations scheduled to commence from the 17th of August, 2020.”
It is not only in Nigeria that schools are reopening for final-year students, in the midst of COVID-19. Other West African countries have taken similar decisions to ensure that secondary school students prepare and write the WAEC certificate examination this year. Schools in Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Gambia and others are reopening for final-year students, under strict conditions, to ensure that there is no spike in the spread of COVID-19.
No doubt, the decision to allow exiting students in Nigeria return to school and write their examinations is a step in the right direction. As other sectors of the society and economy are gradually reopening, after the lockdown and restrictions that started in March, it is good for the education sector to also come back. The government should use the return of exiting students to school as a testing ground for the next phase: Reopening of all schools at a later date.
However, in reopening schools, it is absolutely necessary to bear this in mind: Safety of students is crucial. Inasmuch as writing examinations is important, to ensure that Nigerian students do not lose an academic year, the safety of those who will write examination as well as those who would conduct it cannot be compromised. This is why the Ministry of Education, at the federal and state levels, should ensure strict enforcement of safety guidelines and health protocols in schools.
In schools, basic hygiene must be ensured. The social distancing protocol must be respected. There must be wearing of nose/mouth masks. Regular washing of hands must be made a habit. This means that school authorities must provide the facilities to make this work. Towards this end, there must be running water and soap at the entrance and strategic places in schools. There must be provision of hand sanitizers at the entrance and strategic places. All students must wear nose/mouth masks at all times in class. The students must be taught to sneeze into their elbows or into tissue papers, which are discarded immediately and hands washed.
Social distancing in classrooms is crucial. The schools should space the students out into many classrooms, where they would sit apart, with the rooms well ventilated. It should be made compulsory that schools must have functional sickbays, with standby doctors and nurses to attend to any emergency. The temperature of the students must be checked at entry point. These are small things, but they are important to ensure the safety of students.
There has been an issue about having all the students coming from home, instead of allowing those who want to be in boarding house to do so. Those who say boarding house should not be banned have a valid point. The government should be flexible in this. Students who want to be in boarding house should be allowed, as long as the schools keep to the safety guidelines and health protocols, which include maintaining basic hygiene, wearing of nose/mouth shield and maintaining social distancing, among others. Where these become standard practice, students would be safer in boarding houses than coming from home. However, since day school is inevitable, students who come from home, who interact and interface with others while commuting to school, should be screened and made to observe the health protocols, on arrival and while in school.
With the tight schedule, SSS3 students have only 13 days to prepare for their examinations. This is a big challenge. The outcome of shoddy or no preparation for exams is usually failure. Coming at a time when we say that the standard of education is falling and when there is a record of mass failure in WASSCE, the students will have to work extra hard to do well. The ideal thing is that the students, knowing that the WAEC examinations are scheduled, should have been preparing right from the time schools were shut. Those who used the period of lockdown for leisure will have themselves to blame now.
However, the shutdown of schools, owing to COVID-19, should be an eye-opener for the authorities. A time has come for the country to rejig the education architecture and make it technology compliant. COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the desirability of the use of technology in teaching and in the school system. During the COVID-19 lockdown, some countries taught their students via technology. Some schools tried it out in Nigeria, but could not sustain it due to many factors, including poor Internet connectivity, parents and students’ lethargy in technology use and epileptic power supply, among others. When things return to normal, conscious effort must be made to embed technology in the country’s school system.
Moving forward, the experiment of exiting students returning to school, even as COVID-19 has not abated, should serve as study period on what to do, perhaps, in September when the new academic year starts. Government should, from now, formulate policies that would make it possible for all schools to resume later this year. Some countries in America are using the opening of children’s daycare centres to kick-start school resumption in the next couple of months.
In one North American country, for instance, parents of kids returning to daycare centres are required to provide some things, including, but not limited to, two cover shoes and clothes for their children and wards, which are kept in the school. One pair of the shoes is to be used inside the classroom and the other one outdoors. When the children arrive at the centres, they take off the shoes they came with from home, at the door, for the one kept in school, for the classroom. When they are going for outdoor play, they wear the other pair of shoes as they step out. And when they are returning home at the end of the day, they wear the shoes they came with from home and leave the other two in school. This is also what they do with clothes, etc. They also ensure compliance with guidelines on temperature check, basic hygiene and social distancing.
Nigeria should look at all options. Schools will not be shut forever. They would eventually be reopened, even when COVID-19 is not totally eradicated or a cure found or vaccine manufactured. Life will go on amid COVID-19. The magic is how we protect ourselves. Prevention, as they say, is better than cure.