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Reopening schools: Pawns in the balance – Part 2

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Apart from desiring the reproduction number to be less than one, what are the other indicators that we need before schools can be reopened? We have to look at the preparedness of every system. Let us imagine the systems are all under a suprasystem. If any of the systems are ill-prepared, it will put the students at risk. The systems are all interrelated and are nested under the suprasystem. The Federal Government is the suprasystem.

The systems that we would examine are the state actors like the Ministry of Education, the local government areas and individual schools. All these systems are invariably under the Federal Government. We must understand that as long as COVID-19 is with us in Nigeria, there’s a risk of getting infected with the virus. However, the systems must do as much as they can to reduce the chance of infection.

Although the lockdown has been eased, we must not behave as if the virus has been defeated. In reopening schools, what we are doing is to reduce the risk of infection to the barest minimum. The suprasystem is to ensure that the reproduction number is down to below one. The other systems must coordinate responses in line with best practices to reduce the risk of infection.

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In reopening of schools, we cannot paint with a broad brush. We must be specific. All the schools cannot just open at once because we have high risk and low-risk areas. And all the classes cannot all resume in one day. The highest classes can resume first and the lowest classes resume last. This phased resumption will allow the staff to strategize on best practices. The systems must all develop a task table which lists every desired objective against every measurable outcome. As an example, if we want the children to wash their hands every two hours, then the measurable outcome will be provision of water stations with soap. We can provide five water stations at the entrance of the school and inside we have more. We can say for every 1000 pupils, we will have two water tanks. Before students are allowed back into the classrooms, teachers and all other staff members especially the cleaners must be trained on the new normal. How do the pupils engage in social distancing? Every school has its peculiarities and should decide on social distancing strategies.

They can stagger classes. They can divide the students into two groups; morning and afternoon. Classes can be from 8-12 noon and another group will attend school from 1-4. The classes will be cleaned and disinfected between 12 noon and 1 p.m. alternatively, one group goes to school from Monday through Wednesday and another set goes on Thursday and Friday. The Thursday and Friday group will have longer contact hours because they have just two days.

Another alternative that will not involve breaking the students into groups is to repurpose some spaces in the school premises to allow for classes to hold there. There must be cross ventilation in the classrooms at all times. Sharing of materials should be discouraged. The students cannot play contact sports. Overcrowding should be avoided. Restrict the number of those that can be in the restrooms to avoid overcrowding.

The use of air-conditioners should be discouraged. Food vendors must be trained in hygiene. Lunch times should be staggered to avoid over-crowding. Masks must be worn at all times while in school. Wearing of masks with long strings should not be used on children as a safety precaution. Very young children or those with medical conditions may not be able to wear masks and can have all their classes in one classroom without changing classes. Children without masks must remain in class to eat their lunch. Temperature checks must be strictly obeyed. Parents and caregivers must be responsible and keep their wards at home if they have a temperature. There must be a written protocol on steps to follow if a child develops a fever after arriving in school. During assembly, the children must be reminded daily of measures against the novel coronavirus. The children must wash their hands at least once every two-hour period.

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The Federal Government in collaboration with the state, local and school representatives should develop indicators to determine the effectiveness of their anti-coronavirus protocols. This will serve as an evaluation tool. They should also develop a scoring matrix where the highest score is100 and only schools who score 80 and above on the matrices can open. The items included in it would be measurable indicators; provision of water and soap stations, sick bay, provision of masks for people whose masks get ripped or damaged while already in the school, digital temperature scanners, measures to social distance in classrooms.

The matrix will also score whether or not cleaners, teachers and the remaining staff have been retrained in the new normal. Cleaners need to be taught to clean high contact areas like, door handles, dusters and tap handles more frequently. Sanitizers can be produced locally from universities and from secondary schools with a buoyant chemistry lab. If after the school reopens and a student or teacher gets infected, all the actors in the systems must act quickly to detect all the cases, do a quick contact tracing and maintain good surveillance systems. The schools must be cleaned every day.

Understandably, COVID-19 is not going away in a hurry. The risk of catching the virus is always there but the systems must do everything possible to reduce the chances of infection. Pre-pandemic, Nigeria scored very low on the education scale. The score post pandemic will be determined by the steps we take in reopening our schools. One truth is certain, our children, must not become pawns in the balancing act of reopening schools. One child belongs to a mother, father, brother, sister, friends and many more. They are the life-line of our country’s future. Let’s balance the reopening conscientiously.
Concluded.
Titilola Obilade, a medical doctor and an Associate Professor of Public Health wrote from Abuja.

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