BY SIMON REEF MUSA
The Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 on Monday June 29, 2020 assured Nigerians that plans had been finalised to open schools in order to allow exiting students to write their examinations. Those expected to return to schools, according to the task force, were final-year students of Senior Secondary School (SSS3) class and Junior Secondary School (JSS3) class. With this announcement, students and pupils that have quarantined to their homes since the last week of March heaved a sigh of relief.
As hopes rose and people were eagerly looking forward to the quick resumption of academic activities, the Minister of State for Education and a member of the PTF, Hon. Chukwuemeka Nwajiuba, made concrete these hopes when he was quoted to have disclosed that final students in Nigeria’s secondary schools were slated to write the Senior Secondary Certificate Examination (SSCE) between August 4 and September 5, 2020.
As news for possible resumption schools filtered through the airwaves, not a few were unconcerned with prospects of ensuring a safe environment for returning students. Many analysts were afraid that both public and private schools were still disinfected as most the schools were still in need of enabling conditions to discourage the spread of the virus that has killed over 600 Nigerians and infected over 30,000 people, and still counting. In many schools, the challenge of providing water and safeguarding the health of students and pupils remains a mirage. Against the backdrop of efforts deployed by the PTF, those in charge of fighting the Coronavirus pandemic have never created a conducive environment of combating the virus.
Apart from claims by the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development which claimed it carried out a school feeding programme that had gulped billions of naira, not much was done by the government regarding pupils and students during the lockdowns. The resort to online teaching by some schools became a mirage due to collapsing power infrastructures occasioned by power outages and cascading poverty ravaging citizens.
In the face of growing fears fueled by the increasing number of infections recorded daily, the planned return of students and pupils to schools became a possibility that was seen as fraught with frightening uncertainties. On Wednesday after a virtual meeting of the Federal Executive Council meeting in Abuja, the Minister of Education, Malam Adamu Adamu, justified the fears entertained in some quarters that the planned resumption of schools could turn out a hoax at the end of the day. Describing the report of the planned resumption as fake and without a basis, Adamu said the Federal Government was willing to bear the pains of keeping the schools under locks and keys even for a whole session if such could ensure the safety of students and pupils.
The view of Adamu threw many Nigerians into a muddle as many analysts argued the rationality of upturning an earlier decision carried by his fellow minister who is a member of the PTF, the organ mandated with the responsibility of managing issues relating to the pandemic.
Even before Adamu’s rebuttal of the planned resumption of schools, the West African Examinations Council (WAEC), the body responsible for organising the SSCE examinations, had confirmed that, following plans by the Nigerian government to reopen schools, the council had approved the conduct of the SSCE between August 4 and September 5, 2020. Nigeria’s backpedal on the planned reopening of schools has thrown critical stakeholders into a quagmire of confusion, with the prospects of life returning to normalcy becoming a conundrum.
What many Nigerians, including yours sincerely, are asking is whether the decision to keep schools under lock and key remains the best way to combat the spread of Coronavirus. The World Health Organisation (WHO) had earlier announced that the global community should be prepared to live with the infection, pending the discovery of a cure. If this is true, then we are wedged with the virus for now. The question now is: In what way is the postponement of the planned resumption of schools helping us to fight the virus? What is the total cost of closing these schools compared to the advantages in re-opening them? Is the option of total shutdown of schools the only measure to stop the galloping spread of COVID-19?
I think the best way to prepare against an enemy that won’t go away is to creatively find means of dealing with it. Certainly, closing down our schools to avoid facing a lion on the street that won’t go away is too a simplistic means of resolving the problem. If the “future is not for the faint hearted” as opined by former United States President Ronald Reagan, succumbing to the dismay of crippling fear does not solve our problem.
Already, WAEC has found itself in a dilemma it finds very difficult to solve as it cannot go ahead with organising the SSCE examinations for the other four countries Sierra Leone, Liberia, Gambia and Ghana which had since ordered for resumption of their schools. Even some states in Nigeria, including Lagos, are still torn with the decision of either rescinding earlier decision to reopen schools or toe the lines of the Federal Government that had advised states not to reopen schools.
The controversy over the planned resumption of educational activities, among others, is a reflection of the mix-up that has trailed the management of COVID-19 by the PTF. To postpone educational activities and disrupt students’ academic progression for an entire year due to absence of measures to safeguard school students against the pandemic amounts to a deliberate abortion of the future.
It is an incontrovertible fact that the lockdown caused by the plague has led to the collapse of private businesses and enshroud with gloomy uncertainties the survival of educational institutions. Any further postponement of resumption of schools beyond September is capable of inflicting irredeemable assault on future generations.
I am a bit skeptical over the reason advanced by the minister to justify the continued closure of schools. I refuse to agree with Mallam Adamu that the postponement of planned resumption of schools could serve to stave off the spiraling spread of the virus. Instead of harping on the dangers of opening schools for learning, let us focus on providing a conducive environment that can discourage the spread of the infection when the schools are finally reopened. Basic needs like water and sanitizers are not only absent in many academic environments, but most of these schools are yet to be disinfected.
In some public schools, overcrowding, made worse by dearth of infrastructure, has turned such learning environments into horrible surroundings that are similar to internally displaced person (IDP) camps. The health hazards found in most of these schools are more dreadful and fearsome than COVID-19. I can only support the postponement of the planned resumption of schools only if it will afford the government the opportunity of resolving challenges militating against the health safety of students within the shortest possible time.
Lest I be construed, I wish to restate here with all emphasis that beyond the over-dramatisation and politicisation of the virus, COVID-19 is real. What I am eternally opposed to is riding on public fear of the infection to obliterate the hope of quick return to normalcy of our national life. Resorting to threats of the pandemic to justify the continued closure of schools amounts to mugging the future of education. What we need now are home-grown strategies that will facilitate quick resumption of normalcy in all spheres of our national life.
BY SIMON REEF MUSA