Home column - Friday COVID-19 and dynamics of school closure policy (1), By Isaac N. Obasi

COVID-19 and dynamics of school closure policy (1), By Isaac N. Obasi

One of the boldest policy measures taken by Nigeria in her response to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic in the education sector in 2020, was the reopening of schools (after initial prevarication) to allow students in examination classes (particularly those for the West African Senior School Certificate Examinations (WASSCE) to take their WAEC-conducted examinations. Although the Federal Government foot-dragged with respect to an early reopening of schools to enable students in examination classes to start classes, reason eventually prevailed after much persuasion. 

If anyone is in doubt as to what would have happened to Nigeria’s education sector if the policy trajectory of reopening schools was not followed, then one is reminded of the case of Uganda which has just announced the reopening of schools closed in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As of January 2022, Uganda is among the countries in the world that closed schools for a very long time, and in its own case for about two years, the longest in the world. From hindsight now, Nigeria was wiser to have taken such a bold policy measure of allowing schools to reopen after the national lockdown in 2020.  

School closure policy as a result of COVID-19 pandemic has remained a big issue across the world. Many governments have been going back and forth modifying their policies in response to school closure. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), as of September 2021, “eighteen months into the COVID-19 pandemic, schools for nearly 77 million students in six countries continue to be almost completely closed…Bangladesh, the Philippines and Panama are among the countries that kept schools closed the longest. In total, an estimated 131 million students in 11 countries have missed more than three-quarters of their in-person learning. Around 27 per cent of countries worldwide continue to have schools fully or partially closed” (See https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/schools-still-closed-nearly-77-million-students-18-months-pandemic-unicef). 

Lack of foresight in public policy making is a terrible governance disease in some African countries. It was unthinkable that the Government of Uganda would close its schools without benefit of comparative public policy experience in other climes. For a period of two years the government did not care to shift its school closure policy like in other countries where democratic governance holds sway. One wonders what type of scientific knowledge the government of Uganda based its school closure policy measure for such a long time.

There was no doubt that the school closure policy was considered rational when it was first taken in many countries. However, the dynamics of COVID-19 pandemic also made many perceptive governments across the world to revise their policy particularly as it became rationally suspicious (based on the virus’s mutations into variants) that the pandemic was showing no signs of leaving the earth in a hurry. Many countries listened and followed science in their policy adjustments. Like UNICEF, many governments across the world used ‘data and evidence to drive results’. Some others particularly in countries without strong democratic traditions failed to benefit from scientific driven knowledge in the management of COVID-19.

Following data and evidence, UNICEF in South Asia for example advocated the reopening of schools. Under its ‘Safe School Reopening’ advocacy campaign, UNICEF persuasively made the point that:

Prolonged school closures continue to jeopardise the futures of millions of children in South Asia. Once deemed safe, reopening schools must be considered an upmost priority. The planning, implementation and monitoring of school reopening is no simple task. It is one that requires a cross-sectoral collaboration between Health, Education, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), Child Protection and Gender sectors and across various government branches and ministries. Ensuring safe school reopening plans, policies and procedures are in place, that are in the best interest of the child, is paramount. This includes continuity of learning, efforts to mitigate learning loss, and ensuring children return to school, particularly the most marginalized (See https://www.unicef.org/rosa/safe-school-reopening).

Again, in a joint statement by UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore and UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay on July 12, 2021, they argued that:

As of today, primary and secondary schools are shuttered in 19 countries, affecting over 156 million students. This should not go on. Schools should be the last to close and the first to reopen. In their efforts to limit transmission, governments have too often shut down schools and kept them closed for prolonged periods, even when the epidemiological situation didn’t warrant it. These actions were frequently taken as a first recourse rather than a last measure. In many cases, schools were closed while bars and restaurants remained open. 

The losses that children and young people will incur from not being in school may never be recouped. From learning loss, mental distress, exposure to violence and abuse, to missed school-based meals and vaccinations or reduced development of social skills, the consequences for children will be felt in their academic achievement and societal engagement as well as physical and mental health. The most affected are often children in low-resource settings who do not have access to remote learning tools, and the youngest children who are at key developmental stages. The losses for parents and caretakers are equally heavy. 

Keeping children at home is forcing parents around the world to leave their jobs, especially in countries with no or limited family leave policies. That’s why reopening schools for in-person learning cannot wait. It cannot wait for cases to go to zero. There is clear evidence that primary and secondary schools are not among the main drivers of transmission (See https://www.unicef.org/wca/press-releases/reopening-schools-cannot-wait). 

School closure policy is still very contentious presently in some countries and therefore needs to be properly addressed. There is need to follow science to save the younger generation from widespread illiteracy in the future. How can this be done? The second installment would examine the framework for safe school reopening as developed by UNCEF and others.

•Prof. Obasi of the University of Abuja, is a Visiting (Adjunct) Research Professor at the Anti-Corruption Academy of Nigeria, (ACAN), ICPC, Email: nnamdizik@gmail.com