The fear of the coronavirus has waned so much ao that West Africans have been emboldened enough to send their children back to school, with the significant exception of Nigeria.
Like everywhere else, the region had shut schools when the coronavirus hit in early March. The closure of schools was part of the lockdown measures that the countries in the sub-region took to curb the spread of the pandemic. All said, Africa has fared much better so far than Asia, Europe and the Americas in terms of the spread and casualties of the pandemic.
But while the region has gotten off lightly with the pandemic so far, the socio-economic disruption it caused has created more headaches for the people. Agriculture and commerce were the major victims on the economic front, while education stood out on the social front. Final year secondary school students were just weeks away from their final examinations when schools were hurriedly shut down. The West African Examinations Council (WAEC) had to announce the postponement of the final examinations and so did its equivalents at both the sub-regional and national levels.
Benin Republic, Nigeria’s immediate western neighbour, took the very first lead, reopening schools May 11 (with the exception of nursery schools and universities) to the anxiety of both students and their parents. Not even a mass testing of teachers for the virus, which the government conducted was enough to give confidence to both pupils and parents. AFP news agency recorded the anxiety of both students and parents on the re-opening day. “The virus is still present and they’re making us attend classes. They could have let us stay home”, the agency quoted Merveille Gbaguidi, a high school student in the commercial capital Cotonou, as complaining on the reopening day.
A concerned parent Hermine Adanzounon, whose daughter attends a primary school also told the agency, “If everything is not done in strict accordance with the rules, I’m taking my daughter back home with me.”
The government of Benin had been reluctant about closing the schools in the first place. It took the public demonstrations of students of the University of Abbomey demanding the closure of schools for the government to shut down the schools on March 22. Less than 20 days later, it called off the measure. As at the day that schools resumed, the country had recorded 284 cases of covid-19, with two deaths. However, the numbers tested had been small. Just 14,000 tests had been conducted between May 3 and 7 out of the country’s population of 11 million inhabitants.
Cote d’Ivoire was next, mustering courage to move on and finish the academic year. It re-opened schools, from primary to tertiary, on May 25. Reports from Abidjan quoted Ivorien authorities as saying that the re-opening of schools wasn’t because they felt that they had won the battle against the coronavirus. Rather, it was because they felt that schools, taking all the necessary care, could continue without heightened risks.
Authorities made sure the children followed the coronavirus ‘convention’ of hygiene and social distancing. The school children wore facemasks, and were made to queue and wash their hands before entering their schools. And in the classrooms, they sat one to a desk, and bottles of sanitizer were within reach of each of them.
Assoumou Kabran, an Education Ministry official, acknowledged to Reuters that they were aware of the risks involved in mass gatherings which the re-opening of schools entailed, but added: “We also have an imperative duty to ensure that the children entrusted to us can complete their education.”
Togo opted for a gradual re-opening of schools. Following a meeting of the ministers of Primary and Secondary Education, Publc Service and Labour, Technical Education and Economics and Finance with parents and stakeholders in the education sector, the government announced June 8 as the date for reopening of schools.
However, only students in their final examination years would resume. The government said these students would take lessons for between four and six weeks and then write their final exams. It assured that it would provide the students with the necessary preventive measures for the disease, including hand-washing facilities and reusable face masks. The nation had shut down schools on March 20 after recording its first case of the virus on March 6. As at the end of May, the country had recorded 428 confirmed cases of the coronavirus with 13 deaths.
Ghana opted for the gradual approach too. President Nana Akuffo Addo, in a televised report May 31, announced the phased re-opening to Ghanaians, following consultations with teachers unions.
“Final-year university students are to report to their universities on 15 June, final-year senior high school students, together with senior high school 2 Gold Track students, on 22 June; and final-year junior high school students on 29 June,” said the president.
The returning students, the government assured, would observe the social distancing convention, with half the normal class sizes in the universities, maximum of 30 students in the junior secondary classes and maximum of 25 students in the senior secondary school classes.
Further safety measures, according to the president include the fumigation of all schools prior to reopening and the provision of reusable face masks for the returning students.
University World News quoted Kofi Asare of Africa Education Watch, an education policy research advocacy group as describing the government action as prudent.
“The final-year students must graduate to enable the universities to admit freshmen. Every year, 90,000 students graduate with another 90,000 entering, and if the graduation does not take place, there will not be place for new people to enter”, Asare said.
He also stated that some 400,000 students exit the secondary school system, while some 700,000 enter nursery schools every year.
Nigeria has maintained a very cautious approach to the issue of reopening schools.
On Monday, June 8, Nigeria’s Minister of State for Education, Emeka Nwajiuba, said: “We want to open when it is safe to do so. We have heard about neighbouring countries that opened and shut. We have heard about cases spiking with children getting into school. Of all the things I will like to do, I will not like to experiment with your children.”
Dropping a hint on when the government might do so, Nwajiuba said: “As soon as those in charge of the blockade lift it because there is no way we can open our schools if teachers can’t come. So, we are looking at somewhere after the interstate lockdown is lifted. Because we will need that kind of openness for the children to move.”