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School resumption raises fresh concerns

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• Teachers, parents lament state of public schools
• Health experts worry over students with health conditions

Teachers and parents in Lagos State have expressed reservations about the September 21 resumption date for pupils and students in both primary and secondary schools, describing it as unrealistic for public schools. Medical experts approached to address the worries only expressed divided opinions on the matter.

Teachers and parents said they were in doubt how COVID-19 guidelines and safety protocols would be met when necessary arrangements had not been made in some schools.

They noted that students in exit classes sitting for West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) occupied almost all classrooms and wondered where remaining students would sit on resumption.

Among those that showed fear about the planned resumption were Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT), Academic Staff Union of Secondary Schools (ASUSS), and National Association of the Parent-Teacher Association of Nigeria (NAPTAN).

Describing the September 14 date as unrealistic, ASUSS President, Kassim Labaika, cited one of the state-owned schools as an example. According to him, out of the 13 classrooms in the college, 11 are being used for WASSCE. He wondered where other students would stay on resumption.

He noted that the end of the exam would not bring any relief as another exam, the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE), for Junior Secondary three students, would begin.

“Even if they are going to use morning and afternoon sessions for classes, the classrooms would still not be enough as there are over 100 pupils in a class. Government may have to go back to the drawing board; it is a very difficult situation, except if they would not follow COVID-19 protocols.

Labaika pointed out that some schools had between 1000 and 3000 students with few classrooms, warning that with the principle of physical distancing, most of the students would not have classrooms to sit in.

“Some classes have more than 100 students if you spread these pupils out, where do you put them? Even when we look at shifting, will teachers teach the two classes? Are they going to be paid double salaries? These are the issues,” he said.

REFERRING to the government’s online learning scheme, Labaika said only few students participated, as most parents could not afford the cost of data and phone.

Supporting that the resumption date might not be realistic, NUT said the union had submitted a memorandum to the state government on what must be put in place before schools could resume.

The state chairman of NUT, Adedoyin Adesina, observed that the government had just started to fix the water system in public schools in preparation for the resumption and wondered if they could meet the resumption date. He suggested that schools should resume in phases, depending on the government’s level of readiness.

The NAPTAN Chairman, Haruna Danjuma, urged the government to tread cautiously. Danjuma said the sitting arrangement in line with COVID-19 safety protocol must be considered before reopening schools.

“If schools are opened for all the students, how will they be attending classes? Are they planning to run shifts? Have they put in place makeshift classrooms to accommodate the students? Will they be able to maintain physical distancing or the students would be jam-packed in a place? There has to be a proper plan by the government to assure parents that their children would be safe,” he said.

MEANWHILE, medical experts are divided on safety of students on resumption and called for caution and planning. The Medical Director, Optimal Specialist Hospital, Surulere, Lagos, Dr. Ugochukwu Chukwuneye, said it was not absolutely safe to resume since the COVID-19 pandemic had not been brought under total control. He, however, noted no time had ever been absolutely safe even before the pandemic, arguing that schools had run health programmes, sick bays and employed health workers before COVID-19.

He advised that the decision to reopen schools should be guided by the level of knowledge about the pandemic, the stage of evolution of the disease and the available treatment and preventive measures.

“Much is now known about COVID-19 pandemic. The disease occurrence has reached a stable state, and may be on the decline in most states. The effective preventive measures are known.” He concluded that it was reasonably safe now to reopen schools.

The Director General of the Nigerian Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) Yaba, Lagos, Prof. Babatunde Salako, cautiously supported the reopening of schools, saying: “We have to start from somewhere, cases are coming down in the last few weeks. Isolation centres are not seeing significant number of admission cases coupled with the fact that we have not seen much of children infection so far. We must however be prepared for an upsurge in infection because of expected increase in social interactions.”

A public Health Physician and Director General of Delta State Contributory Health Commission (DSCHC), Dr. Ben Nkechika, said full school reopening was safe if certain health safety precautionary measures were put in place.

Nkechika said a cost-benefit analysis and an opportunity review cost would likely show that the cost of continuously keeping the children out of school was too high a price to pay in the country. He said the consequence would be in both short and long-term costs.

Nkechika added that a strategic and systematic plan for school reopening should be implemented to save the Nigerian educational system from further degradation. “We now live in a global competitive world and the world is not standing by waiting for Nigeria,” he said.

A pharmaceutical chemist and Head of Party, Bloom Public Health, which is supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Prof. Chimezie Anyakora, said: “I think once the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) protocol is followed, there won’t be a problem. Many countries across the world are opening up; this shows other counties have evaluated the risk too. In as much as COVID-19 is a very serious pandemic, the disease is much more understood than before. As we wait for the final solution, which is a vaccine or therapeutics, more guidelines on how to get back to normal life will be coming out in Nigeria like in many other countries.”

Should children with underlying health conditions (asthma, diabetes, obesity) return to school? According to the WHO, whether a child should go to school depends on their health condition, the current transmission of COVID-19 within their community, and the protective measures the school and community have in place to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

While current evidence suggests the risk of severe disease for children is lower than for adults, precautions can be taken to minimise the risk of infection among children, and the benefits of returning to school should also be considered.

Current evidence suggests that people with underlying conditions such as chronic respiratory illness, obesity, diabetes or cancer are at higher risk of developing severe disease and death than people without other health conditions. This also appears to be the case for children, but more information is still needed.

ACCORDING to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), in preparation for school resumption, the Federal Ministry of Education has developed a national guideline for schools and learning facility for reopening after COVID-19 pandemic closures. This outlines key strategies for implementing safe, efficient and equitable plans for school reopening and operations. It was developed in collaboration with Education in Emergencies Working Group in Nigeria (EiEWGN), Federal Ministry of Health, NCDC, civil society and other relevant development partners.

To ensure the safety and wellbeing of learners, teachers, administrators and other educational personnel, the NCDC recommended widespread sensitisation through continuous dissemination of information, education and communication materials on COVID-19 as well as compliance with safety measures.

The measures, according to the commission, include proper screening at school entrance, use of facemasks, diligent temperature checks, washing of hands with soap and water, among others. The commission also urged schools to establish COVID-19 referral system, just as it promised to monitor, encourage and enforce all school reopening protocols. “We strongly advise parents, teachers, school owners and all relevant stakeholders in the educational sector to take responsibility for creating a safe environment for learning,” the NCDC advised.


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