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More questions than answers on schools reopening

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Students in an examination hall

It is argued that the going back and forth of the Ministry of Education shows unpreparedness of the country to face the realities of COVID-19 as schools reopen. After various pronouncements on reopening, postponing and eventual agreement to reopen schools for SS3 students to write WAEC exams, Iyabo Lawal, (Lagos), Lawrence Njoku (Enugu), Kevin Ebiri (Port Harcourt), Charles Ogugbuaja (Owerri), Bukky Olajide (Abeokuta), Oluwaseun Akingboye (Akure), Rotimi Agboluaje (Ibadan), Michael Egbejule (Benin City), Alabi Abdulganiyu (Kaduna) and Agosi Todo (Calabar) looked at how ready the states are considering the COVID-19 guidelines.

On July 27, Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Education issued a statement that likely brought relief to many SS3 and JSS3 students across the country.

It is not also hard to imagine the disappointment of stakeholders in light of the back-and-forth posturing of the Federal Government. All unity colleges and northern states publicly-owned senior secondary schools will now allow their final-year students to sit an exam which has been repeatedly postponed since April 2020, following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Until Monday, the Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, had vowed that nothing would make him order the reopening of schools or move him to permit SS3 students to sit for the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) organised by the West African Examination Council (WAEC).

As late as July 23, reports indicated that government considered replacing WASSCE with the General Certificate Examinations (GCE) in November if it failed to reach an agreement with other member countries of WAEC on appropriate dates for the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE). WAEC had, at the last count, fixed August 4, which drew the ire of the education minister.

The Minister of State for Education, Emeka Nwajiuba, at the bi-weekly briefing of the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 had said: “Unfortunately, WAEC cannot unilaterally move the exams but we have also worked out a negotiated timeline with the council on Nigerian peculiar subjects. These are subjects that are only held in Nigeria.

However, on Monday, the government made another volte-face: Nigerian SS3 students would join peers in West Africa to sit for the exam, starting from August 17, according to a statement by the education ministry, leaving many students with just two weeks to prepare for the exam.

“Secondary schools in the country are to reopen as from 4 August 2020 for exit classes only. Students will have two weeks within which to prepare for the West African Examinations Council (WAEC) due to start on 17 August 2020,” a statement by the government announced.

A spokesperson for the education ministry, Ben Goong, disclosed that the announcement was a unanimous decision following a virtual consultative meeting among the Federal Ministry of Education, state commissioners of education, the Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT), the proprietors of private schools, and chief executives of examination bodies.

Goong added that it was agreed that the exit classes should resume immediately after the Sallah break, from August 4, to enable them prepare for the exam.

“The meeting also resolved that a passionate appeal be made to the Federal Government through the Presidential Task Force on Covid-19 and public-spirited Nigerians for assistance to schools across the country to enable them fast-track the preparations for safe reopening, as agreed,” said the statement.

Schools have remained shut for months but now the government has decided on a partial reopening of the schools. The question is, with government’s characteristic knee-jerk reactions to important and urgent issues, what are the concrete measures put in place to keep everyone — students, teachers, invigilators, etc., safe amid the rising cases of COVID-19 in the country? Any misstep could prove counter-productive and disastrous.

Many stakeholders are worried that public and private schools are far from being prepared for reopening for the exam to hold. Have all schools been disinfected? Have isolation centres been set up.

It seems there are more questions than answers as the Federal Government listed questions that must be answered before schools are reopened. Some of the questions include: what is the level of compliance by the public schools with the guidelines? How much capacity has Nigeria built for national testing? What is the capacity to test, trace, isolate, and support the schools when cases are suspected? Does Nigeria have the capacity to test all returning staff and students in (boarding) school facilities? What is the capacity of the healthcare systems nationwide to promptly detect and contain an upward surge in the number of coronavirus cases if a second wave occurs? Are schools able and ready to implement infection prevention and control measures? What is the capacity of schools and learning facilities nationwide to maintain safe school operations (such as social distancing) to mitigate risks? For example, size of classroom compared to the number of students; adequate ventilation in classrooms; availability of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) amenities, including latrines, hand-washing facilities with soap and water?

How does the school population travel to and from school? What is the risk of using public transportation for teachers, other staff and students? What are the community-related risk factors to reopening schools for both teachers and students, considering epidemiological factors, public health and healthcare capacities, population density, and adherence to social distancing and good hygiene practices?

Lagos
The Director-General, Office of Education Quality Assurance, Mrs Abiola Seriki-Ayeni, had issued guidelines for re-opening of schools in accordance with the Federal Government’s stance.
She advised both approved or unapproved private school owners, to study the released guidelines and develop a template for their re-opening plans.

Seriki-Ayeni added that private schools must register for clearance in readiness for re-opening, by visiting the agency website to fill in basic data about their schools.

And to ensure compliance to safety guidelines by public and private schools, the Commissioner for Education, Mrs. Folasade Adefisayo who led a monitoring team round some schools in the state to assess the situation expressed satisfaction with the level of preparedness of the schools, adding that the state government is very concerned about the safety of students and their teachers.

The commissioner noted that the inspection tour will continue till all schools are covered and warned that any school accommodating other students apart from SS3 and TEC3 contrary to the state government’s directive at this period will face disciplinary action.

Adefisayo enjoined teachers to take care of themselves and also take up the role of enforcement and compliance to the COVID-19 protocols by students.

She however called on parents/guardians to monitor their wards closely as their roles are germane and complimentary at this period.

Enugu
The government last Friday began the decontamination of all public schools in the state ahead of resumption of academic activities.

Adamu

Although the state government was yet to announce any date for resumption of academic activities, it stated that it had concluded plans to train teachers on detection and management of suspected cases of coronavirus in students, adding that it was making efforts to provide thermometres to every school in the state.

A visit to some secondary and primary schools showed that surroundings were littered with dirt and overgrown grasses. Doors and windows of these schools were firmly locked indicating no activities since March when the government forced the schools to close over the ravaging virus.
There were also some schools, whose roofs had been blown away by the wind and the ones that were not accessible as their entry gates were heavily padlocked.

But the Ekulu Primary School in the Government Reserved Area (GRA) of the state seemed to be the greatest beneficiary of the lock down occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic, following the total rehabilitation of the entire school facilities.

The school, which until now was dilapidated, now wears a new look.
The massive renovation of the school was carried out in its 13 buildings that comprised 66 classrooms. Other facilities that were procured for the school included plastic lockers reading tables for teachers ceiling fans marketer boards, renovation of 23 toilets, kitchen, security post and school hall.

Some private schools visited in the state were also kept under lock and key. There were however some that had the presence of only security men. One of the schools located on independence layout was however found with a bucket of water, soap and hand sanitisers at the entry gate manned by two security men.

When inquired why the hand wash was provided since the school was not in session, one of the security men simply said,  “We run online classes for our students and the teachers come in here to use the facilities. So when they come, they wash their hands before accessing the school compound”.

No private school benefited from the decontamination and fumigation exercise embarked upon by the state government as at the time of filing this report.

But a proprietor in one of the private schools in the state who pleaded anonymity told The Guardian that a few of them were already running with some of the health guidelines provided by the Federal Government before the outbreak of COVID -19 pandemic.

“We have kept a high hygiene culture. I have a sick bay that is managed by a qualified nurse employed and paid by the school.  It is our first point of call for my students and teachers before any referral can be made if the case grows worse. Water runs in every toilet in the school and in there, you have some detergents which the students make use of. We acquired thermometres that were in use before the closure in March this year.

The facility helped us to check the temperatures of the students and it was a rule that parents keep their sick child at home and bring them when they are fully recovered.”

On what the state government is doing to ensure safety of the students, the commissioner for education, Prof Uche Eze, explained that certain schools in the state had witnessed massive rehabilitation since the beginning of the year.

“We have started fumigating all our schools. The state government will make appropriate announcement when the schools will resume. We are ready. The only thing the governor is waiting for is to hear from the technical committee but I know that everything is set”, he said

On whether the schools would have capacity to test and isolate cases that might arise from resumption; Eze said the government was working closely with the ministry of health.

“We are providing sick bays in the schools where if we identify anybody that has high temperature, we will take the person in.  We are enforcing the use of thermometre for checks at every entry to determine the temperature of our students. If we identify any child that has high temperature, we will make adequate referral immediately and it will be sorted out”

For schools with boarding facilities, the commissioner said government had carried outfumigation of the dormitories to keep reptiles and other unwanted materials away, adding that efforts are being made to ensure that the necessary protocols are maintained when schools resume.

Asked whether private schools were part of government plans, Eze said: “We are working closely with them. We are already moving round and inspecting private schools to ensure they comply with the protocols because the guidelines are clear. Any school that fails to meet with set requirements will not be allowed to reopen in Enugu.”

Rivers
Amid fears by parents and guardians of risks of COVID-19 as terminal students resume classes, the state government is set for a hitch-free learning.

Last week, it commenced the handing over of COVID-19 sanitary and hygiene kits to 257 public schools in line with the safety guidelines.

The Deputy Governor, Mrs Ipalibo Banigo, who supervised the handover of the kits explained that items which included hand sanitisers, gloves, facemasks, detergents, running water buckets, and disinfectants were part of government’s effort to ensure that students are not infected with coronavirus as they return to school for their exit examinations.

She charged principals to ensure proper utilisation of the kits by sanitising their environment and also follow all necessary COVID-19 protocols. Students were also urged to cooperate with their teachers to ensure their success during the exit examinations.

The Commissioner for Education, Prof Kaniye Ebeku said a task force comprising officials of health and education ministries as well as security agencies have been constituted and would be deployed to monitor compliance and enforcement of extant coronavirus protocols.

He disclosed that the ministry, with support from its health counterpart would make provision for sick-bay or nursing stations with first-aid boxes in all schools to facilitate immediate response to emergency cases.

However, as the risks of COVID-19 remain high in the state, which is the fifth most infected with 1806 confirmed cases and 53 deaths, some teachers in both private and public schools as well as parents have expressed reservation about their safety,
They expressed concerns about densely populated public schools like Holy Rosary Girls Secondary School, Government Girls secondary school, Oromenike, Government Girls Secondary School, in Port Harcourt as well as those in the rural areas.

The managing director of a private school, Showers of Christian High School group, Mrs Emilia Ekana Akpan, said government, parents and teachers should focus on spreading accurate information about the coronavirus, dispel myths and make the students realise the importance of wearing face masks.

“I already have a nurse. We have a clinic where we can keep any sick student in isolation. Every morning we are going to use infrared thermometre to check their temperature. We will put water wherever is suitable for students to wash their hands. It is not getting these things that is important, it is making the students understand why they are putting on facemask for instance and washing their hands” she said.

She explained that a lot of the private schools would struggle to meet some of the guidelines stipulated by government.

Ogun
Some of the schools visited have zero preparation for resumption of students with the exception of two private schools.

Of the public schools visited, there were overgrown weeds and no signs of environmental preparation for resumption.

Speaking with one of the teachers, she explained that they had written to the management of the school concerning the accompanied rules and regulation for resumption but they are yet to get any response.

On the issue of soap, water and hand sanitisers, the teacher said they have not bought any.

It is a worse case scenario in other schools visited as The Guardian checked their dilapidated toilets with no water. Speaking with one of the teachers who pleaded anonymity, he said the toilets have been like that before the advent of the pandemic.

“The management is aware that we lack water, so we are expecting them to come up with steps for acquiring water,” he stated.

A public school visited on Quarry road, Abeokuta actually has running water and was building some toilets before the pandemic. One of the teachers said efforts are being made to provide water and soaps for the students.

But most public schools visited still have unkempt environment, while teachers confessed that there are no provision for testing kits, isolation and support centres, and in a lot of cases, school clinics are not functioning.

Edo
Private school owners have called for extension of time to enable students in exit classes prepare for WASSCE. While advocating four to six weeks for students to prepare, they said the students have been out of school for the past four months.
Chairman and National Director of Administration of the association, Godly Opukeme and Elakhe Imoukhede respectively, said the students need a minimum of one month to re-acclamatise to school environment.

Oyo
Most schools are in full compliance with COVID-19 safety protocols.  At the entrance of each school, there were hand-washing materials and infrared thermometres to test students, teachers and others.

At its meeting of July 21, the state executive council had approved a new academic calendar to guide resumption of schools and other associated educational activities.

According to the state commissioner for education, Olasunkanmi Olaleye, pupils and students in the exit class would proceed on holiday from July 30 and resume for their examination as follows-Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE)- August 10 to 18, entrance examination into the schools of science- August 19, placement/screening test to JSS1- August 20, placement test into technical colleges- August 28.

Following the agreement between the Federal Government and the West African Examination Council (WAEC) on the commencement of WASSCE, the state government announced a slight adjustment to the schedule of school reopening earlier released.

The commissioner directed that there should be continuation of lessons for SS3 students till the examination commences on August 17.

Olaleye said the schools are keeping with the protocol and guidelines, adding “I don’t know of any state that has prepared like Oyo State in terms of response to the pandemic.

On social distancing, Olaleye said since only terminal classes are in school, there are enough classes to meet with the stipulated guideline.

President, National Association of Proprietors of Private Schools (NAPPS) in the state, Kayode Adeyemi, said, “We are prepared.  It is almost a month that we have opened and if we were not prepared, a spike would have been recorded on COVID-19.
“There is nothing special about the Federal Government’s guidelines. Oyo State took a pacesetting approach, which the Federal Government adopted.

“There is no way you can run a school without a sickbay.  In fact, every school must have a sickbay.  Even in boarding houses, you will always have a nursing officer who takes care of the people.  It is what we have experimented in the last one month.

Nwajiuba

“What we did was to test-run with terminal classes in the state and by the grace of God, we have been able to maintain social distancing.  If we are opening up the schools for all students, there are strategies and methodologies that can be employed.

Ondo
The government has ordered the immediate reopening of secondary schools in the state to allow the conduct of WASSCE. Already, fumigation has commenced across the 18 local government areas.
The Permanent Secretary in the ministry, Akin Asaniyan said the fumigation would be done in all public and private schools across the state in line with the Federal Government’s directive on partial reopening of school for graduating students.

Some school managers said they had already disinfected and fumigated all their facilities before the state government pronounced the reopening of schools.

According to one of the proprietors, Mr. Sunday Oladimeji, most schools have created WhatsApp groups where they communicate with parents

Calabar
Cross River state is not left out as necessary facilities have been put in place. The Commissioner for Health who is the Chairman of COVID-19 Response Team in the state, Dr. Beta Edu said her team is working with school principals on infection prevention control (IPC) protocols.

“We are looking at a situation where schools can get automatic disinfectant pass through where people can go through before entering the school premises. School authorities have been instructed on the importance of physical distancing, the use of facemasks and hand washing with soap.

On working condition of staff, she said, “We have actually asked the principals to be very selective of members of staff, deal with younger ones. Those who are above 50 years should be less exposed and if we all take the procedures seriously, there would be less risk.

Imo
Visits to some schools within Owerri metropolis showed that no measures have been put in place by the state government for returning students.

The Commissioner for Education, Prof. Bernard Ikegwuoh however stated that government has set aside about N20m to provide necessary preventive materials for public schools.

A private school representative, simply identified as Ngozi, lamented that lack of funds prevented them from meeting all the stipulated guidelines. She cited the long stay at home, which led to paucity of funds to meet all the conditions.

“We can only provide the much we can. Lifeline should come from both the government and philanthropists. We are providing the basic ones we can.

Kaduna
The Commissioner for Education, Dr Shehu Muhammad said about 44,775 students writing WASSCE will occupy 400 out of the 500 schools in the state.

Ahead of school resumption on August 10, the commissioner said government would only provide Personal Protective Equipments (PPEs) for public schools, while private school owners should bear the cost.
“For schools preparing for WASSCE, we have asked the principals to earmark one of the hostels as isolation centre for those coming from outside Kaduna and endemic areas. Secondly, we have a health team that will keep surveillance on all the students.

On whether the state government will assist private schools in meeting the stipulated guidelines, Muhammad said, “What they asked for was for government to allow schools reopen which has been granted.


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