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COVID-19: How to reopen schools, not when

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We are at an absolutely crucial moment on the discussion of reopening schools. This shebang would put to test our clear understanding and assessment of the issues that may likely be after such (reopening) action. COVID-19 changed the course of our country since its arrival four months ago; the government speedy intervention by enforcing lockdown and closure of public places to curb the spread were easily understood. Our youths and children have been at home for a longtime. Now, the government has been easing the lockdown and as we begin to consider readmitting all pupils into school, we need to resolve the question of how to provide vital education while safeguarding students, staff and families alike.

The question would be, is it safe for us to reopen amid the unknowns of the corona virus pandemic? And when the time comes, how will schools ensure students return and help learners who have fallen behind since school closure? The decisions are complex because the pandemic continues to evolve, and in a serial manner. As experts have given their suggestion of this case, there are still question marks on how the process would be managed.

As one can expect, the longer the school interruption, the psychological implications of children continuing stay at home deepens, as social vices multiples there are more likely hood that students would take time to be brushed up before there exams. Which we would have easily escaped if only our government had highly invested in education, schools would have carried out an e-learning strategy to keep students busy while at home. The issue of reopening is not as simple as the government puts it, as we need to weigh the risk and benefits of reopening schools. Without strong evidence-based plans from government, a return to school will only increase existing pressure on them. One serious challenge is that large number of students who return to school could be carriers of the virus but no present obvious symptoms. And despite social distancing measures in schools, the simple act of mingling with others may lead to a spike in cases of coronavirus.

The first major concern would be on how to enable a safer schooling environment in terms of social distancing with the same population of students. As most schools especially public schools and federal universities cannot contain such situation and I don’t see how they would be able to manage the situation either, with many of our schools (particularly our universities) being overcrowded. Some students have chair to sit, some of them stand, squat or perch on the windows to receive lectures. In fact in my school, desks meant for six persons, ten would squeeze themselves and yet half of the students are still standing. Research points to the fact that the physical setup of classrooms and schools contribute to students learning.

Also, what measures are we going apply to decongest the hostels in our universities where there are high rate of squatters? Or which university can build more hostels in the space of one or two months? Experts in other countries are calling for a phase readmission of students back to school and physical limitations of buildings, both inside and out, which we cannot afford. But we are talking about our future, in fact the future of this country and anything that happen at this pivotal stage could lead to another unforeseen problem. Moreover, the clinics in our schools are poorly equipped to facilitate the reopening and as we lack testing kits and low testing of people, even as our current capacity is 1,500 per day in contrast to other developing countries like America who is testing at the average of 300,000 per day while United Kingdom carry out an average of 100,000. With low test we are actually blind to assessing the effect of this disease, so how would we go about what to do and how to cope in this situation. Since the phase 1 of relaxation of the lockdown there has been a 75% increase in cases of corona virus which we are not still sure of.

There has been an intense debate in UK since it’s reopening on June 1, which teachers unions and left wing council have admitted that it is not safe for students to return – this to me is the plain truth with up to 300,000 cases. In our clime we have to accept the reality of the situation that most of our schools are poorly equipped and pitifully inadequate to carry out any safety guidelines no matter what is being prepared by the Ministry of Education or NCDC, COVID-19 has shown crystal clear the gaps in our schools, that we must fix before reopening. We must also remember that the first phase easing of lockdown have served as a parameter or a trial of what reopening of the schools would be, because no matter the safety guidelines, implementation is another issue to consider and with the increase in the number of doubting Thomases every day is really another mountain of problem.

As these incurable believers of the non-existence of this virus and that the virus is not capable of surviving in the heat and humidity in Africa, are mainly our students and when mixed with other realistic individuals would cause many to backslide. 

As the federal government continues gradual easing of lockdown, it is set to roll out measures to be put in place for safe reopening of schools. It is considering sectionalizing classes for all tiers, before talking of reopening schools. The minister of State for education, Emeka Nwajiuba, disclosed on May 27 during a briefing by the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 in Abuja that there may be morning and afternoon sessions when the schools resume. “We are going to publish a specification on what we expect the reopening to look like. For a country that has over 115,000 primary schools, you will understand that 35,000 of these who are private must agree to set up the same standard in other to allow children to go in”.

But I think leaving this in the hands of the state government is tricky and risky, due to how we have seen most state governors confront the situation. He added, “Until we are sure these children can go to school, return safely and not put those who are more susceptible at risk, then we are running a huge risk and God forbid, in our hurry, something happens to our children, I am not sure anybody will be able to retrieve what has been lost”. Those are words of wisdom, which must not be left behind, as they continue to access the situation.

There must be a consultation and communication with parents, teachers, students and communities at large which would be necessary to understand concerns and address them. As UNESCO in a statement released last month noted: “the key message is that these decisions are context specific, and depend on the capacity of schools to mitigate risks of infection transmission and promote healthy behaviours……

After safety, there must be a focus on the learning recovery process – from assessing learning outcome during school closures, ensuring their socio-emotional well-being and taking measures to address disparities through remedial approaches. Support to teachers and their professional development will be essential to success”. As Lagos state government noted recently to be relying wholly on advice from federal government and NCDC, therefore any State governments who chooses a gradual approach is not failing to deliver, but rather is working as hard as it can to solve a difficult problem, with the needs and their families at the heart of their action.

Okechukwu wrote from Department of Mass Communication, University of Nigeria, Nsukka.   


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