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Government will reopen schools once satisfied with level of response mechanism, says Nwajiuba

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As countries grapple with disruptions to education caused by COVID-19 pandemic, when and how to fully reopen schools in Nigeria remains one of the toughest and most sensitive decisions for the federal government, even as some state governments have approved resumption of Junior Secondary School 3 (JSS3) and Senior Secondary School 3 (SSS3) students to enable them to write external examinations. In this interview with KANAYO UMEH a fortnight ago, Minister of State for Education, Chukwuemeka Nwajiuba, spoke on federal government’s efforts to ensure the safe reopening of schools across the country.

What are your concerns as some state governments reopen or prepare to reopen schools?
My concern generally is to make sure our students are safe and that the environment is safe for them to come back to.

Some of the problems of facing schools in Nigeria range from packed classes, lack of running water, electricity, dirty environment and so on. How is the government going to surmount these challenges preparatory to reopening of schools?
Government has been trying to make new facilities available, and that is an ongoing thing. Almost all the institution of government, including the UBEC through the SUBEBs, TETFund through the campuses, NEEDS Assessment, PTDF and CBN are providing infrastructure continuously in most of our schools.

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We are also inviting non-government players through NGOs and our own informal arrangements to help in rehabilitation and repair facilities so that they would be enough.

But as the population continues to grow, you will expect that there will be pressure on almost all the infrastructures, so that will require for us to continue to update and make sure they work.

How is the government going to handle the enforcement of social distancing and personal hygiene whenever schools re-open, considering the nature of children?
Government is already broadcasting some enlightenment campaigns through the Ministry of Information.

We have said it repeatedly to school owners and institutions that they must make sure these strategies are in place in their areas of control, be it churches, mosques or classes, but especially schools, when they reopen.

Government alone cannot enforce the social distance measures; a whole lot depends on the citizenry buying into that process. There is really nothing the government can do further than to keep sensitising the people and making regulations. If things change, of course, we will also communicate that.

You aware that the World Health Organisation (WHO) said asymptomatic patients might not be as infectious as we had thought. We also have had new studies going on, with the United Kingdom (UK), for example, trying to figure out if we require one metre or two metres of space to avoid infection.

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With all of that, if things change, we will update our citizens, because it is led by science.
COVID-19 has exposed the inadequacies in the online mode of teaching and learning in Nigeria. Is there any plan by the government to invest massively in this mode of education?

The online teaching is an ongoing thing; Nigerian is already running a National Open University, with nearly 87 study centres across the country. However, as education expands, you will notice that a lot of people now want to adopt the online teaching and learning method.

The advantage of having an online facility is the universality of knowledge, as you can learn from the University of Aberdeen in the UK, for example, from Nigeria.

Secondly, there is digitisation of teaching. We may not be able to get all the best to go to Jigawa State, but if you are in Jigawa, you can access what is being thought, and that is what the Ministry of Education is providing.

If you go to the ministry’s website, you will have access to the COVID-19 response, where we made available, a digital format for all curriculum, so that states and sub-national can just take the much they need for the one that is relevant to them, and any other person can do almost the same thing.

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That is an ongoing exercise, what the ministry needs to be done, as a body, would be in broadcasting and content. The final use of this would be access to devices and Nigeria is not in the position to provide every citizen with a device.

All these devices are produced abroad and we do not have a national programme yet to begin the national production of the devices. If we do and everybody buys into it, it would be the quickest way of carrying everyone along.

But with 30 million people in schools in Nigeria from kindergarten to the university, Nigeria will not be in a position to do that immediately. However, a national programme encouraging people to do that is in the effing.

We are trying to get the World Bank and some development partners to agree, for instance, that each of our headmasters should have a laptop, at the minimum. If we can get a laptop to a headmaster, we know that no matter how far away this place (ministry’s head office) is from the urban cities, anything the ministry develops, no matter how remote this place is, somebody will have access to it.

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Will the government consider shutting down schools again if there is any major outbreak in any state or schools when they finally reopen?
The good thing is that there are now about 33 laboratories for the diagnosis of COVID-19. We are waiting to see how all of that comes together because part of our strategy is to ensure that in every state, once there is an outbreak or a spike, we want to be able to respond.

I want people to appreciate that the lockdown was not to hurt citizens; the government was just trying to prepare a response and when we are sure that government is fully prepared for a response, we can talk about reopening schools, and that is the reason why I attend the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 meeting because I need to know the state of preparedness nationwide.

I want to be sure that there are test lab, ICUs and isolation facilities in every state. When we are sure that all these are in place, we can then set a definite date for the reopening of schools.

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When schools are open, we want a kind of immediate response. Children are children; they will be sick one way or the other, the key thing is to be prepared to respond. Once we are satisfied with the level of response mechanism, then we can reopen schools.

If there is an outbreak in any school when we reopen schools, we will examine the nature of the outbreak. For instance, if it is a teacher, you may need to just remove the teacher or if it is a student or a class because there are so many things and variables around each response, we will respond accordingly.

When we reopen, we would require all schools to provide handwashing facilities and minimum kind of social distancing, although that would be difficult with children, at least we should get them minimally organised. We want the teachers to be able to have some kind of facemasks and PPEs so that students are thoroughly checked from time to time.

We are looking to have locally-made disinfectant booths so that a child does not bring in what he/she is bringing from home and would not be taking the one he/she is taking from school out.

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