Like all crowd-pulling places and events, educational institutions are high-risk areas for coronavirus (COVID-19) infections. But the worrying question is: for how long should educational institutions be on a lockdown given the continuing increase in the number of cases of COVID-19 infections in the country. For example, “Nigeria on Saturday night’ (May 30, 2020) ‘reported 553 new cases of COVID-19, the highest daily record since the index case in Lagos in February” (https://sundiatapost.com). This brings the total number of infections in the country to 9,855, with Lagos state recording 378 new cases in one single day. Yet the long period of lockdown of educational institutions is exacerbating the tension between life and livelihood with the potential of stretching the patience of stakeholders in the sector to a breaking limit. Likewise, the dilemma facing public policy makers is getting even more agonisingly worrisome.
For sure, parents and students in public and private schools alike, proprietors of private schools, owners of private tertiary institutions, booksellers, food vendors, among many others in the education industry, are without doubt increasingly worried about the continuing lockdown, and itching for the reopening of the institutions. Education public policy makers in turn are getting the heat of the pressure in no small measure each passing day, as they too have high responsibility in ensuring that lives of pupils, students and teachers are protected when schools reopen. Again, they have high stakes like others as they are also parents or grand-parents of pupils, students, teachers or relations of those in the educational institutions.
Two weeks ago (May 18, 2020), the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 announced a two-week extension of the Phase 1 stage of the gradual easing of lockdown restrictions. This announcement dashed the hope of stakeholders who were expecting the reopening of crowd-pulling organisations in the educational, social, entertainment, business, commercial and religious spheres of life. The PTF, however, gave a glimmer of hope towards lifting the lockdown of these organisations. First, while announcing the extension of Phase 1 lockdown restrictions, it said that the two-week extension was also necessary ‘to enable other segments of the economy prepare adequately for compliance with the guidelines, preparatory to re-opening in the coming weeks’. Secondly, it specifically ‘asked businesses, offices, professional bodies, places of worship and educational institutions, awaiting reopening to use the additional two weeks to plan and adopt new strategies in line with the guidelines, for the new life ahead’. (See BusinessDay, May 19, 2020). Again, in May 26, 2020, The Nation newspaper reported that the Lagos and Federal governments were working towards the reopening of schools.
With these cheering news at the background, it was thought that the coast was getting clearer for reopening of educational institutions. Surprisingly, this hope was dashed when the Minister of State for Education, Emeka Nwajiuba, announced at another daily briefing of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 (PTF), that educational institutions would not be reopened until the government was sure that students would attend classes without getting infected with the coronavirus. As he put it bluntly: ‘until we are sure that our children can go to school and return safely without taking COVID-19 home, we are not ready to take the risk of opening schools’ (See: The Guardian, May 28, 2020). This ministerial policy statement further shattered the little hope of reopening schools soon. But there are still hopes, that if both sides work harder and think deeper, our educational institutions may reopen sooner than later. What then are the available options for reopening sooner than later?
To begin with, let us examine the Federal Government proposal as announced by the Minister at the PTF briefing. According to him, “the Federal Government is weighing the option of running two classes in the morning and afternoon in the secondary schools to enable students make up lost grounds when normalcy eventually resumes to the school calendar”.
He also said that “the plan entailed the adoption of a two-shift system and allowing those who will write exams to return earlier than others. The model is to ensure that all the children do not return to their schools at the same time to ensure physical and social distancing as well as proper sanitation and hygiene at every school”.
Lastly, he said that “government was also considering allowing Senior Secondary School students to finish first before others resume at a later date given that it was virtually impossible to practice social distancing in the schools”.
These policy proposals are worth implementing within a framework of policy differentiation across public and private sectors. Put differently, a one-size-fits-all approach and policy will not be the way to go. A flexible policy should be adopted. First, private education institutions across levels should be allowed to resume earlier than public education institutions. They are more likely to meet up with the government guidelines without much delay. This is because their smaller class sizes (than in public schools) will conform easily to the required social distancing protocols. Secondly, along with this, all students writing external examinations in both public and private sectors should also resume at same time. Thirdly, the two-shift system can be applied selectively in private schools where there are many students – otherwise those without many students can still maintain the old system of operating only in the morning. The key policy-driver here is flexibility and differentiation, as against uniformity of policy.
Within one month, this flexible policy can be experimented to enable the government draw some lessons on how to proceed with public institutions. And within this experimentation period, the various governments across federal and states should prepare adequately for the reopening of public institutions within a COVID-19-free and safe school environment. It is heartening to note that Lagos State Government appears to have shown the lead by announcing a plan to employ 2,000 teachers preparatory to reopening of schools. This is a highly commendable policy initiative. More teachers will help the creation of additional class streams in line with social distancing and hygiene protocols. The delayed resumption of public schools will also enable the governments to provide the needed additional infrastructural facilities. With all these on ground, the risk of exposing our children across levels to COVID-19 infections will be highly reduced.
•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: firstname.lastname@example.org