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COVID-19 and the renewed hope of School reopening in Nigeria, By Isaac N. Obasi


As the dust raised by the news of the Federal Government reversal of its earlier decision to reopen schools for examination classes in primary 6, JSS3 and SSS3, is yet to settle down, the Minister of State for Education Hon. Chukwuemeka Nwajiuba issued a statement last Friday, 17 July 2020 that offered a ray of hope for school reopening. According to the statement, the government has given “school owners in the country up to July 29, 2020, to meet specific guidelines towards the reopening of schools at a date to be announced in due course” (See Vanguard, July 17, 2020). 

The announcement of this deadline to meet the necessary safety guidelines for reopening of schools is a major policy shift from the earlier position that the condition is not yet safe to reopen schools.  The deadline also, is a positive signal or renewed hope towards the resumption of pupils and students in examination classes this year. The Vanguard newspaper captured this positive nature of the development with the caption: ‘COVID-19: FG to review decision on school resumption’. This column sees such a review as the way to go if the future of 1.5 million Nigerian future leaders is not to be truncated. 

It will be recalled that in our previous two-part article which called for the reopening of schools for the examination classes, we maintained that it appeared that the Federal Government had not prepared well enough to warrant reopening schools with a large measure of confidence. Consequently, we maintained that the Federal Government should be proactive enough to put safety measures in place in line with the guidelines issued by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) which are necessary conditions for a safe resumption of schools. We decried the simplistic statement that the conditions are not safe yet to reopen schools, as part of the reasons (aside the community transmission of the virus) for the unsafe condition, is lack of safety measures in the schools. The presence of safety measures is part of making the condition safe for the reopening of schools.

The wait and do-nothing approach (reflected in the condition is not yet safe statement) means that unless the deadly coronavirus (COVID-19) is completely exterminated, the schools will not be reopened. The better approach we argued, was to put all safety measures in place against the possibility of spreading the virus among the students, and after which, to go ahead and selectively reopen schools beginning with the examination classes. The pupils and students will have all the spaces in the schools to permit physical distancing during the examinations. If this approach is not followed and the examinations are postponed till next year 2021 for example, the two sets of examination classes would be competing for spaces thereby making physical distancing difficult to maintain.     

It is heartening to note that the details of the statement issued last Friday show that the Federal Government has adopted a proactive approach of doing-something and putting safety measures in place before reopening of schools. It is necessary to provide more details of the statement by the Honourable Minister here before making further analysis on the subject under discussion. Since many of the newspapers reported almost the same thing, we are making a summary of the report by one newspaper namely Leadership newspaper (18 July 2020) as follows:

The Minister of State for Education, Hon Chukwuemeka Nwajiuba, said that the government has developed and circulated guidelines for the reopening of schools after consulting widely in collaboration with Federal Ministry of Health, Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), the Education in Emergencies Working Group. He therefore urged schools to undertake self-assessment and send feedback to state ministries of education, not later than 29 July 2020. Thereafter he said consultations with relevant stakeholders would be held to review the situation and decide on a specific date for reopening or otherwise.

The minister said further, that having taken the painful but necessary decision not to reopen schools without necessary preparations to ensure the safety of students and teachers, the Federal Ministry of Education had continued consultations with stakeholders, and a mechanism to assess and monitor compliance shall be put in place.

Continuing the minister said, since Tuesday last week (14 July 2020), the ministry had consulted widely with stakeholders in the sector, including commissioners of education in all the states of the federation, the Association of Private School Owners of Nigeria, (APSON), National Association  of Proprietors of Private Schools, (NAPPS), provosts of colleges of education, rectors of polytechnics,  Vice Chancellors of Universities, some State Governors, and  development partners. 

With respect to WAEC, the minister said, that the government met with WAEC on Monday (13 July 2020) and had agreed to further consult with four other countries on a new examination date. And appealing to parents, the minister conclusively said, parents should be rest assured that the safety of our students and teachers was paramount as we work assiduously towards speedy reopening of our schools for the exit classes to take external examinations (See https://leadership.ng/2020/07/18/fg-gives-school-owners-july-29-to-meet-guidelines/.

Like we already said above, the government’s new approach is reassuring that all authorities (both public and private school owners) are working towards taking practical safety measures before reopening schools. Nonetheless, one very important issue needs to be examined. Going by the statement in which the minister “urged schools to undertake self-assessment and send feedback to state ministries of education” (emphasis added), it appears nothing was said about the Federal Government-owned 104 Unity Schools. A content analysis of the reports in many of the newspapers showed that there was no mention of the Federal Government as a school owner. The news reports implied that the Federal Government was speaking as a regulator and not as an owner of schools itself. If the minister’s statement deliberately talked about the Federal Government only as a regulator and not as well as a school owner, this column considers such as a big mistake. The Federal Government is both a regulator (through policies and laws) as well as an owner of schools. It should also be regulated by the policies it makes.

The crucial questions therefore are as follows: Is the Federal Government undertaking a self-assessment of all its own Unity Schools and also doing something meaningful as well, to put all the necessary safety measures in place? Or has the government undertaken the self-assessment already? If it has already done so, it should showcase what it has for purpose of confidence-building among stakeholders particularly the parents. But if it is currently doing so and putting the measures in place, it can still show the lead in showcasing such accomplishments for confidence-building sake. Whatever is the case, its leadership is needed to motivate state governments and private school proprietors to work very hard to put their own safety measures in place. 

We argue so because both the public and private schools need to be on the same page with respect to full compliance with the safety guidelines for the safety of our children whenever the schools reopen. There should be no excuse since the schools were closed in March which is over four months ago now. We are arguing so also because we are agitated as part of the statement by the government above reads: “Thereafter…consultations with relevant stakeholders will be held to review the situation and decide on a specific date for reopening or otherwise” (Emphasis added). We just hope that the Federal Government will not use the excuse of unpreparedness to actualise this or otherwise in the statement. This will mean that school reopening for the examination classes will still be a mirage this year. That would be very calamitous, and should be avoided. 

Finally, there should be freedom of choice given to parents to decide for their children to participate or not, in the various examinations (i.e. primary 6, JSS3, and SSS3). This choice should not be made on behalf of the parents by the three levels of government (namely federal, state or local), as such would be an infringement on the democratic rights of parents to take such important decision. It is better for the parents to take responsibility for this decision to avoid blaming anybody. However, the various governments and private school proprietors have the very important responsibility to provide all the necessary safety measures in every school before reopening. If the will is there, this can be done for the benefit of our children. 

Those who disagree on this line of thought have the right to do so, and also parents who are afraid to allow their children to participate in the examinations, are also free to make their own decisions. But the governments and any other authority should not take the very important right of making this decision, on anybody’s behalf.   

Prof. Obasi, a public policy expert (& former columnist in the Daily Trust, Abuja, March 2003 to October 2006, & Daily Champion, Lagos, April 2005 to December 2008), is of the Department of Public Administration, University of Abuja. Email: [email protected]      

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