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Weighing safety options ahead re-opening of schools

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The gradual easing of the COVID-19 lockdown has been progressive in the past few weeks. Traders now open their shops on specified days of the week in some states; religious faithful can now gather in limited numbers; inter-state flight will resume on June 21 while it is also expected that inter-state roads would be opened for inter-state travellers on the same date. But many people now ask: when would schools re-open?

That question is fuelled by such thoughts as: if children could join their parents in the market, go to worship centres with them and possibly travel with them, why can’t they be allowed to go to school?

Recently, reports emerged that the PTF had said schools would re-open in the country on June 8. But it turned out to be a rumour as the Minister of State for Education, Mr. Chukwuemeka Nwajiuba, quickly debunked it during the briefing of the Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19 (PTF) on May 27. Nwajuba stated that until the coast is very clear that children could go to school and return safely, and not contract COVID-19 and infect others, the schools would remain closed.

He, however, stressed a point made by the Chairman of the Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19 (PTF) and Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustapha, during an earlier briefing, to the effect that educational institutions should be putting measures in place in line with the COVID-19 preventive guidelines while awaiting re-opening.

Findings by The Guardian showed that while many states have started working on such measures, others were yet to make any move. Further findings also showed that while some parents were very concerned about the effect of COVID-19 pandemic on the education of their wards, they would not be willing to send their children back to school anytime soon unless their safety is absolutely guaranteed.

There were, however, parents who believe that their children have stayed at home for too long and should be allowed to return to school, though with some precautionary measures in place.

In the view of a mother of four in Oke-Afa area of Lagos, Omodara Akinlabi, Coronavirus pandemic depicts a war situation, hence the need for the situation to totally normalise before the re-opening of schools.

She said: “Three of my children attend public school, only the youngest of them attends a private school. If you ask me, I would say that reopening public schools without ensuring absolute safety for pupils/students is as good as sending our children to war. As a matter of fact, I am tired of having all of them at home all day long for three months. I desperately want them to return to school, especially the ones that attend boarding school. But I would not dare to send them back to school if they are returning to continue their usual school routine.”

Akinlabi said parents and their children could easily observe the hygienic and safety measures against the virus at home, adding that because of the carefree nature of children, leaving them to return to school without being absolutely sure of their safety would be disastrous, except the rumour that the virus does not exist in Nigeria is indeed true.

“Otherwise, I insist that the Federal Government should brainstorm with medical experts and come up with a workable strategy that would guarantee the safety of the children before reopening schools,” she added.

Azeez Alao, a father of one, also said his child would not return to school anytime soon.

“I have just one child and he is not leaving this house for any school. What are they learning that they cannot learn next year? Anyone that wants to send his kids to school is free but as for me, I am not doing that. This government couldn’t handle getting people to isolate when they come into the country, contact tracing and so on. That is what caused this problem for all of us, and the shut down of the economy. Is it this same government that I will entrust the health, life and safety of my child to? It is not possible,” he said.

A commercial tricycle rider whose son attends Unity Junior High School, Isolo, Mr. Kareem Ogunbiyi, said the number of students in her son’s class was so much that she was afraid of sending him back to school anytime soon.

“My son’s class is filled to capacity and considering the rate at which they say this Coronavirus spreads, if government does not come up with safety measures before reopening schools, especially public schools, there will be problems.

“I suggest that the government splits classes into sessions, perhaps 20 pupils at a time, then extend school closing time to 6.00pm and have students come to school at their scheduled time.

“However, extending school time with multiple sessions would require employing more teachers because if we have same set of teachers to repeat lessons, they would be overburdened and exhausted,” he said.

Ogunbiyi further said parents and guardians would have to contribute their quota to the safety of their wards by providing them with basic protective items like nose mask, face mask and portable hand sanitiser to guard against contracting the virus.

Nevertheless, a mother of three, Faosat Olaosebikan, said she does not mind her eldest son, an SS1 student of Okota Senior Secondary School, returning to school because she feels he is old enough to take safety precautions.

“He is already a teenager and I think he is old enough to know his left from his right. However, I won’t allow the younger two to return to school, especially the one in primary school. Most times, he loses items he goes to school with and even brings home other children’s items. If I give him face mask to use, he will lose it and there is the risk of him picking up any other one he sees to use. There is a limit to how you can totally monitor little children because once you look away for a second, they are doing that very thing you asked them not to do. He will not only bring home Coronavirus but also the other normal diseases that little children usually get. I want the government to think carefully before allowing schools to re-open. We are talking of little children here that don’t really know their left from right,” she said.

Ruth Okon also said she has no intention of sending her children back to school if schools re-open now. “When the lockdown started, I was really struggling to do the online classes for them and it was eating seriously into my time and data. I had to leave everything I was doing to focus on helping them with their schoolwork and we were still paying some money to the school. When I discovered how things were progressing, I stopped the online classes totally and instead, got them a lesson teacher that comes in the morning and leaves in the afternoon. This is a much better approach for me and it helps the children maintain some form of structured environment to their learning. This is how we will continue till I am told that Coronavirus has been eradicated.

“I cannot expose my children and by extension my family to getting this virus after all the preventive measures we have adhered to all these months. Government needs to hold on about re-opening schools; I know there is pressure on them but they should also consider our health and well-being.”

On Mrs. Sidiq Taiba’s part, she wants the government to reopen schools without further delay, lamenting that her children have just been playing since schools were closed down.

“The Federal Government should please reopen schools alongside worship centres because my children seem lost in their own world. They no longer read; they seem to have forgotten everything they were taught in school. The other day, someone asked my son a simple question and he fumbled. Although his younger sister rescued him, I was frustrated to see him in that state. I am not educated so I want my children to be educated. How will that happen if they continue to stay at home? This is why I want the government to up their game against COVID-19 so these children can return to school,” she said.

A primary six student of Olokun Primary school, a government-owned primary school in Isolo, Mutiat Ajetunmobi, said while she craved re-opening of schools because she misses learning and her friends, she was afraid of Coronavirus.

“My school does not have water and washing our hands often will be impossible. Also, will our teachers give us hand sanitisers? If we bring from home, other students can steal it or beg you for it and it will finish quickly. Also, there is no water in the toilet. I don’t see how we can maintain cleanliness very well. We are many in my class and in my school, and I don’t think we can practice social distancing,” she said.

Despite Ajetunmobi’s concerns, some teachers in government-owned schools told The Guardian that the Lagos State government has been putting some measures in place to ensure the safety of pupils/students when schools re-open.

A Commerce teacher at Ilupeju Grammar School, Mrs. Sherifat Ismaila, said: “Recently the schools were fumigated and lots of renovations were carried out by the Lagos State government. There are also guidelines for re-opening of schools like having in place running water, wash hand bowls, NAFDAC-certified hand sanitisers, sitting space or distance, use of face mask, session classes (morning and afternoon), availability of working thermometres to mention a few.

“Presently, the government is trying but the only problem schools will likely encounter is the issue of classrooms and furniture to accommodate the students in terms of the social distancing order.”

An English teacher in a government-owned school, Mr. Michael Okon, corroborated Ismaila’s assertions, saying: “I believe the government is putting measures in place for the reopening of schools but I can’t say for now how prepared we are as every preparation falls on the government.

“Government-owned schools are highly populated and I feel the social distancing order would be difficult to obey considering the population. But I believe the government is working effectively to deal with this situation. In terms of the cleaning of the school environment, the Ministry of Environment (MOE) is on it.”

An official of the Lagos State Ministry of Education, who pleaded anonymity, said the government has started tackling the envisaged challenges ahead of re-opening of schools.

The source said: “Concerning the re-opening of schools, the greatest challenge envisaged in government schools is how to prevent the spread of virus considering the population of our students. To this end, the government has issued directives to school managements to put in place at least five hand washing slots in each school in preparation for re-opening and to embark on serious campaign on social distancing and then design a plan on how to effect it when schools finally re-open.

“It is most likely that students in terminal classes, that is JSS3, SSS3 and Primary Six shall resume on July 13, according to the chairman of the PTF on COVID-19 to enable students prepare and write their final exams.

“Government-owned schools in Lagos are hardly filled with dirt nowadays. This is because LAWMA now visits schools at least once in a week to help dispose the refuse found within the school premises.”

‘Test All Pupils, Students Before Re-Opening Schools’
From Ayodele Afolabi, Ado Ekiti

Mustapha

Ekiti State public schools, just like others across the country, have suffered severely from public perception. This explains why an average resident prefers to send his/her children to private schools. Apart from the rot in infrastructure, there is lack of commitment by the teachers. In a recent independent assessment of schools in the state, public schools could not be found among the top 10.

This notwithstanding, the state government has been planning for the reopening of schools, which have been shut since March to curtail the spread of COVID-19.

The Commissioner for Education, Mr Foluso Daramola, told The Guardian that the government has developed strategies that would not allow the spread of the virus among school children.

His words: “We are planning ahead so that by the time the Federal Government releases its guidelines, we just key in. We have been doing a lot of works. We started engaging the stakeholders since Tuesday last week. We concluded with them yesterday. We are engaging the ANCOPS, PTA, ASUS and NUT, among others. We are trying to sensitise them on what we want to do. We intend to provide sanitisers, hand washing buckets and soaps, thermometer and other things needed to check the spread of COVID-19.

“We want to clean all the schools and their environs. We will be engaging the Ministry of Health and Human Services so that we can have dedicated health officers in our rural areas in case of emergency. We are also planning to ensure that there is social distancing among our students.

“On the issue of re-opening, we are waiting for the Federal Government’s guidelines. At the level of the minister and the commissioners, we are already working on the guidelines to be followed.”

A pharmacist residing in Ado Ekiti, Mr Theophilus Adekunle, urged government to put in place all the World Health Organisation (WHO) protocols for the containment of the pandemic before re-opening schools. He added that all returning students must be tested before being admitted into schools.

Adekunle said that trained health personnel should be drafted to the schools in case of any emergency. He also said that schools could resume in phases to encourage social distancing.

A parent, Mrs Jumoke Ibitoye, expressed reservations about the readiness of the state government to provide facilities that would curb the spread of the pandemic.

She cited the issue of COVID-19 palliatives, which the government promised to give during the lockdown but failed to do so for majority of residents, as one of the reasons the government could not be trusted to provide enabling environment for the students amid COVID-19 pandemic.

We Are Already Improving Infrastructure In Schools, Says Imo Commissioner
From Charles Ogugbuaja, Owerri

As at Wednesday, June 10, Imo State had recorded 83 confirmed Coronavirus cases. The development has raised the apprehension of residents.

Against this backdrop, the issue of reopening the schools amid the pandemic has been occupying the thoughts of government officials, parents and even pupils and students. Of major concern to the stakeholders is the pitiable state of most government-owned schools in the state, especially in the rural areas. Many rural schools in Imo State have their roofs blown off even as there are no adequate desks for pupils and students.

The Executive Secretary, Secondary Education Management Board (SEMB), Mrs. Obiageli Anyikude, told The Guardian that Governor Hope Uzodimma was very concerned about the lives of pupils and students, adding that his administration has commenced addressing the infrastructure problems in the schools ahead of re-opening.

She stated that preventive measures like disinfecting the schools was paramount in the programmes of the government.

Anyikude said the Imo State Task Force on Prevention and Control of Spread of COVID-19, led by Prof. Maurice Iwu, would work out other health measures to be put in place when the Federal Government orders re-opening of the schools.

On his part, Imo State Chairman of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), Dr. Kyrian Duruewuru, opined that the health workers should be equipped with Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) to enable them attend to emergencies that could arise from the schools when re-opened.

A parent, John Okechukwu, urged the government to disinfect all schools in the state, provide running water and soap for students to wash hands as regularly as desirable, and hand sanitisers before the re-opening of schools. He said unless the government does that, parents might be reluctant to send their children back to school.

He further stated that students should be taught and guided to observe social distancing, adding that parents should bear the burden of providing face masks for their children.

He also advised that pupils and students should be monitored in class and during break period to ensure they comply with all the necessary rules that would guarantee their safety.

“The above are important in order to avoid the spread of the pandemic in our schools. If the state government is not ready to make such provisions, it should not re-open our schools,” he stressed.

A mother, Joy Ipke, suggested that there should be a ban on admission and registration of pupils or students from other states, advising that both private and public schools should abide by it.

‘Anambra Will Run Physical And Virtual Classes’
From Osiberoha Osibe, Awka
Anambra State has declared that it would only re-open schools in the state when the Federal Government gives a nod to that effect.

Speaking on the state of facilities in the schools ahead of the eventual re-opening, the state Commissioner for Basic Education, Prof. Kate Omenugha, said the government was sensitive to the dangers that would come with re-opening of schools under a pandemic.

“Government knows what it is doing, so we are not going to reopen the schools and risk the lives of our children to COVID-19 pandemic just because some people are calling on us to resume,” he said.

He said the state government introduced the ‘Teaching On Air’ programme one week after the closure of schools in the state to ensure that pupils and students remain busy, stressing that the state would not be in a haste to re-open schools.

Omenugha said: “When schools were shut down on March 24 because of Coronavirus pandemic, we decided to engage school children in something meaningful instead of leaving them to idle away. In the second week into the programme, we opened the lines for students to call in, so that we can get feedbacks because it is being streamed live on Facebook and Youtube.”

He noted that the programme has been beneficial to pupils and students, saying the state had plans to continue with virtual learning even when schools re-open as part of measures to contain the spread of Coronavirus.

“When schools eventually resume, we are not going to use only the traditional face-to-face method of learning but we will also teach the children through electronic and online media.

“The schools will also run morning and afternoon sessions so as to maintain physical and social distancing. The government is also planning to reach people in rural areas by providing them with radios,” Omenugha added.

She disclosed that the state government was planning to train teachers on the use of technology ahead of school resumption even as she pleaded with parents to provide their children with phones that would enable them to participate in virtual learning.

An educationist, Nehemiah Obuorah, however, said there was no need to re-open schools now, warning that “anybody thinking of re-opening schools in the face of spike in COVID-19 cases is making a grave mistake.”

Obuorah, who is the owner of Netherlands International Schools in Awka and Abuja, predicted that, “once schools re-open, it will open a floodgate of pupils and students going on admission in hospitals due to Coronavirus infection.”

He said that government has an obligation to ensure safety of pupils and students by decontaminating the school premises three weeks before re-opening of schools with anti-virus fumigation chemicals, advising that students should be given facemasks free of charge and tutored to observe physical distancing, regular hand washing with soap or regular use of hand sanitisers.

A business woman based in Onitsha, Amaka Chinenye Okoronkwo, also warned against re-opening schools at a time the country was recording increasing cases of COVID-19.

She urged the government to keep the schools closed until there is a vaccine for the virus. She feared that children would easily spread the virus to many homes if schools were re-opened now.

“Whenever it is feasible to re-open schools, government should think it wise to provide palliatives and use teachers to enforce observance of personal hygiene like regular hand-washing, regular use of hand sanitiser and physical distancing in their various schools,” she added.

Enugu Yet To Develop Plans For Resumption, Waiting For FG’s Green Light
From Lawrence Njoku, Enugu
There are no signs that the Enugu State government is planning to re-open schools for now. The much the government has done since it was forced to close public and private schools in the state following rising cases of Coronavirus was to begin a radio school for primary and secondary schools children in the state.

Many observers believe that the state has been waiting for the Federal Government to make a pronouncement on re-opening of schools before rolling out its own timetable.

Efforts to speak with state Commissioner for Education, Prof Uche Eze, on plans for resumption of schools proved abortive. He did not respond to phone calls or text messages sent to his mobile lines on the issue.

A source in the Ministry of Education, however, told The Guardian on condition of anonymity that “there are no plans for schools’ resumption for now,” adding, “I think the government is concentrating efforts on stemming the tide of the coronavirus. But I also think that since we have been following directives from the Federal Government, if there is an attempt to open schools nationally, I believe Enugu will join.”

Asked whether there are modalities being mulled in case the Federal Government lifts the order against re-opening of schools, he said: “Such is not within my knowledge. I think the Commissioner (education) should be in a position to know. He is the one that attends executive council meetings.”

Findings showed that the premises of most public and even private schools in the state were overgrown at the time of filing this report. Some have also had their roofs blown off by heavy windstorms associated with the rainy season.

But amid the waiting game coupled with the high cost of e-classes, which several private schools have been conducting in the state, some parents have decided to engage private tutors for their children.

A father of four, Ralph Ugochukwu, said: “I engaged a teacher for two of my children in primary school. The teacher comes to my house to handle them while the other two go to a lesson centre to do their learning.

“I couldn’t afford the cost of e-learning – buying data, laptops, coupled with electricity that has become irregular in the state. These things are not easy to come by any longer. So when I make up the money, I can conveniently afford to pay for their tutorial.”

Asked what he would want the government to put in place before re-opening schools, Ugochukwu said there should be hand washing points and hand sanitisers for pupils and students, adding that classrooms should be arranged in such a manner that pupils would not be crowded.

He added: “We can have double sessions per day comprising morning and afternoon sessions. This will reduce the number of students in the class and reduce the time the students spend in the school. If possible, Saturday could as well be used for school.”

UNILAG Rules Out Physical Interaction Classes When Schools Re-Open
By Maria Diamond
The Vice Chancellor of the University of Lagos, Akoka (UNILAG), Prof. Oluwatoyin Ogundipe, has said the institution would not resume physical interaction lectures when the Federal Government eventually gives directives for resumption of schools across the country.

The Vice Chancellor spoke when ex-Pro-Chancellor of the institution, Chief Arthur Mbanefo, bequeathed the Arthur Mbanefo Digital Research Centre (AMRDC) to the university last Thursday.

He said the decision was based on the fact that students were more vulnerable to Coronavirus pandemic.

His words: “For this semester, we are not going to have physical interaction classes because we have done our study looking at the staff, students and community and discovered it is not safe to have our students return to the classroom just yet.

“We have over 5,000 staff, over 1,000 academic staff, senior staff over 3,000, junior staff are about 700. So, when you bring all of them into this community, there will be problems. We are strictly adhering to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) social distancing guideline. So, our students will have their lectures online and when it’s time for the exam we would map out safety strategies for them to use the facility for the exam seamlessly.”

Ogundipe, however, disclosed that until the FG orders the re-opening of schools and members of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) call off their ongoing strike, the online classes would not resume.

“We have already strategised on what we need to do when our students resume eventually. The institution was about rounding off the semester before the COVID-19 lockdown, so when the strike is called off and the Federal Government gives directives to resume, we are going to have online lectures and we would announce when they would have their exams. We are ready to ensure that our students have the best of online teachings and we have worked on our facilities to meet the demand,” he noted.


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