COVID-19: The dilemma and politics of school reopening in Nigeria (1), By Isaac N. Obasi

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There is little doubt that unlike in some other states, education policy makers, executors and managers in Oyo State worked very hard to be in a state of preparedness for the anticipated reopening of schools closed in March 2020 across the nation due to the ravaging COVID-19 pandemic. It is, therefore, understandable that Oyo State felt very disappointed when the hope of reopening schools for examination classes was dashed by the Federal Government last Wednesday, 8 July 2020.  The state of being in shock is the right phrase to describe how some other Nigerians, also reacted. Prior to the reversal of reopening of schools, the recurring policy issue of whether to reopen schools (or not) for those in final examination classes, had remained a big public policy dilemma since April this year, and has thereafter dominated discussions in the media. 

The sudden reversal by the Federal Government of its earlier announced decision to reopen schools for pupils and students to take their final examinations (in Primary 6, JS 3, and SS 3), sent shock waves to some state governments, parents and students anxiously waiting for the anticipated reopening particularly after the West African Examinations Council (WAEC) released its time table for the 2020 West African Senior Secondary School Certificate Examinations (WASSSCE). 

There are other Nigerians however, who welcomed the reversal with great joy and relief arguing like the Federal Government that the time is not yet safe for the schools to reopen due to the continuous spread of coronavirus. Yes, each side of the argument has its justifiable reason, but in the opinion of this columnist, the side that calls for the reopening of schools specifically to enable students to revise and take their examinations, appears to have more justifiable and progressive reasons than the other conservative side which appears to be operating a policy of do-nothing until the virus goes away (a wait and see policy approach) or at best a back-and-forth shaky attitude of preparedness. Unfortunately, the Federal Government and all other state governments that support this policy reversal belong to this conservative side of the argument.

For sure, the downside of their argument that the time is not ripe or safe to reopen schools, is that given the way this coronavirus is still spreading in Nigeria, it is very likely (repeat very likely) that the first half of next year 2021 may still not be safe for the schools to reopen, if safety as defined now by this group remains the same in their minds next year. Recall that many Nigerians including those in authority are very poor at obeying the COVID-19 safety guidelines. And so if they continue to disobey the safety guidelines (and they are more likely to do so), the future of these students would hang in the air? In that case, such a potential situation would generate a bigger policy dilemma than what we have now. 

In fact, two sets of Nigerian students for WASSSCE (i.e. 2020 set and 2021 set) would be at a greater risk of not fulfilling their hopes of graduating out of the secondary school as social and physical distancing protocol would be more difficult to maintain. This is why this column supports that the schools should reopen for this 2020 WASSSCE set now within the strict compliance of the guidelines issued by the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 and the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).

For those who may like to compare this situation with what is happening in the Unites States of America, this call for reopening of schools for the examination classes in Nigeria is quite different from the way President Donald Trump is calling in a blanket manner that all schools must reopen in Fall, failing which the school authorities risk losing their federal funding support. We will come back to this issue much later within the context of the concurrent nature of education in Nigeria’s federal constitution. But why is the Federal Government suddenly moving back-and-forth in the way it is handling the issue of reopening schools?

In fact, two sets of Nigerian students for WASSSCE (i.e. 2020 set and 2021 set) would be at a greater risk of not fulfilling their hopes of graduating out of the secondary school as social and physical distancing protocol would be more difficult to maintain.

On 20 April 2020, this column talked about a policy dilemma involving a choice between the devil and the deep (blue) sea in a piece titled: ‘COVID-19 lockdown exit policy for Nigerian educational institutions’ (See Sundiata Post via https://sundiatapost.com/covid-19-lockdown-exit-policy-for-nigerian-educational-institutions-by-isaac-n-obasi/. To get over the hard policy choices involved, this column in that piece raised several relevant policy questions that should be considered in moving forward. 

Still on 24 April 2020, in another piece titled:  ‘COVID-19 lockdown Exit plan of the Buhari Administration’ (See Sundiata Post, via https://sundiatapost.com/covid-19-lockdown-exit-plan-of-the-buhari-administration-by-isaac-n-obasi/), this column proposed a way forward on reopening making specific recommendations. Then on 1 June 2020, in yet another piece titled: ‘COVID-19 pandemic and the long lockdown of educational institutions’, this column also proposed specific but flexible policy approach on how to commence a gradual reopening of schools starting with the students in examination classes, and in private educational institutions that comply with the safety protocols. The federal and state governments had three months to talk about and plan the way forward to reopen schools. 

The reversal of announced reopening is simply like taking the nation three months back where we were in April talking about plans, policies and strategies of how to reopen the schools after the lockdown. We were then expecting the various governments (federal and states) to begin getting the schools ready for the new normal that requires upgrading of infrastructure and provision of facilities to meet up the social and physical distancing and hygiene protocols. This column, therefore, expected that in July, the Federal Government should be showing the world what infrastructure and facilities are in place in its 104 Unity Schools to set the standard expected of other public and private schools to follow. But it appears that this is not the case. In fact, telling Nigerians that students will miss their WASSEC for safety reasons is like telling us that it has failed to provide the safety measures in the first place or that it has done nothing to get the schools ready in a secure manner. This fear currently in official circles appears to reflect more of failure than the actual fear of coronavirus.  

Let me state very clearly that this issue before us here is still a difficult and controversial one. Whichever position one takes, there will be accusation of one form or the other. On the one hand, if it is proposed as we have done that schools should reopen one will be accused of insensitivity because one’s child is not in any of these examination classes. And on the other hand, if it is proposed that schools should not reopen, one will be accused of wishing other people’s children to stagnate because one’s own children have passed those classes. So what is our interest in taking the position we have taken here? 

Our interest is primarily driven by professional and mental health considerations of the danger of keeping our SS3 students (for example) away from taking the WASSSCE. Postponing this examination until next year may even create mental health problem for some of the students. And more seriously, it will lead to serious and more dangerous congestion (i.e. combing this year’s set with the next year’s set) which will breach the social distancing protocol and create more health hazard that we are running away from this year. The same logic applies to the other examination classes except that the difference is that they are all within the total control of Nigeria as a nation, while WASSSCE is not strictly under Nigeria’s total control, as it involves five West African nations. The National Examinations Council (NECO) is within Nigeria’s exclusive control and the Federal Government can organise NECO examination at any time it chooses, but this is not so with examinations under West African Examination Council (WAEC). 

So what is really the problematic with the Federal Government in having a progressive outlook towards reopening schools for final examinations? This and some other questions will be the subject of discussion in part two of this article. 

•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: nnamdizik@gmail.com      


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