Education

2020: Unusual year for education sector

˜Schools shut down for months
˜WASSCE postponed many times
˜ NECO yet to write some papers
˜Uncertainty over institutions’ admissions

REVIEW
The outgone year 2020 will ever remain an unusual year for the education sector, given the monumental challenges caused by the outbreak of Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the attendant crisis posed for the sector. KAYODE OLANREWAJU examines the challenges

For the nation’s education sector, like other sectors of the economy, the year 2020 will not be forgotten in a hurry as it will ever remain in history as an unusual year for the delivery of teaching and learning process, given the ravaging effects of COVID-19, strike and other crises that rocked the sector.

In March 2020, Nigerian schools, like other schools worldwide were shut down as Coronavirus (COVID- 19) reached pandemic levels. So far, the effects of the pandemic have left an indelible mark on the teaching profession in both positive and negative ways, as the entire world is now at a crossroads more than ever, with the teachers working to protect the right to education and guide it into the unfolding landscape brought about by the pandemic.

Though 2020 has come and gone as a year when activities in the sector were not only curtailed by unforeseen circumstances, the challenges posed by the developments will continue to threaten the education sector in the New Year. Given the effects of COVID-19 on the learning process, the school system was greatly affected, as teachers had to implement social distancing and deploy online strategy in the teaching and learning process.

In the year under review, the nation’s education sector, which was bogged down by several events that shaped the school system and its attendant ‘new normal,’ however, witnessed acute disruption of the teaching and learning process, as well as academic, research and community service in the tertiary institutions.

The unfortunate events hit the sector like a cyclone, as the sector was first ushered in by a two-week warning strike declared by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), which was to be followed by the indefinite nationwide strike also declared by the union on March 23. The lingering strike, which paralysed activities in the university system, left the students at home for almost 10 months.

Indeed, the over nine-month ASUU strike, tagged as the longest in recent years, was only suspended on Thursday, December 24 after series of failed negotiation between the Federal Government team, led by the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige and the ASUU leadership, also led by Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi.

The unresolved protracted face-off was blamed on the Federal Government, which failed to avail the opportunity of the window created by the lockdown to resolve the impasse, withhold allowing it to drag for almost 10 months. Following the outbreak of the global Coronavirus (COVID-19) in February with the first index case of an Italian national, the spread of the virus resulted in the total closure of all educational institutions across the country. This led to total disruption of the school calendar as schools had to hurriedly shut down on March 28 with the first term examinations put on hold.

Due to the spike in coronavirus, leading to total lockdown of social and economic activities of the country, all educational institutions across the nation were shut down and were not allowed to reopen for more than six months.

In view of the forceful closure of schools, the 2020 West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) for Senior Secondary School (SS 3) students, earlier billed to commence in April was put on hold indefinitely.

On Friday, March 20, the West African Examination Council (WAEC) at a press conference addressed by WAEC Nigeria’s Head of National Office (HNO), Mr. Patrick Areghan, announced the indefinite suspension of 2020 WASSCE for School Candidates. According to him, the examination scheduled to begin on April 6, 2020, was postponed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, while the timetable for the examination would be reviewed after the coronavirus pandemic situation improves.

He said: “The West African Examinations Council in Nigeria and indeed the West African sub-region has decided to put on hold the conduct of the West African Senior School Certificate Examination for School Candidates, 2020, earlier scheduled to commence on April 6, 2020.

“This is as a result of the impact of the novel and deadly Coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) and the serious implications it has for the conduct of the WASSCE for school candidates, 2020, coupled with the anxieties it has generated among the populace.”

The WASSCE was postponed several times between April and August before it was finally conducted from August 17 to September 12. Also, WAEC had to postpone the WASSCE for Private Candidates, 2020 Second Series initially scheduled to commence on Saturday, November 14, till Monday, November 30 due to the pandemic. Apart from postponement of its examinations, WAEC also suspended its 68th Annual Council meeting of the five-member nations – Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and The Gambia, scheduled for Liberia from March 23 to 27, 2020.

However, due to the absence of the normal teaching and learning process in the school system as a result of closure of schools, many institutions had to resort to the unconventional learning mode through online/ virtual programmes introduced by some schools for the students, as well as television and radio tutorial/lessons initiated and sponsored by some state government to take care of the students learning at home during the lockdown. Despite several efforts made for six months at reopening the schools for the conduct of the WASSCE, as well as resumption for other categories of students and pupils by the National Association of Proprietors of Private Schools (NAPPS) and other stakeholders, including the National Parent Teachers Association of Nigeria (NAPTAN), the Nigeria Union of Teachers no Nigerian schools was allowed to reopen. This was as such moves met stiff resistance from the Federal Government, which cited the spike in the pandemic as reasons, maintaining that schools would not open in the interest and safety of the students, until the COVID-19 curve was flattened.

Several efforts were made at reopening the schools for the conduct of the WASSCE, as well as reopening of schools for other categories of students and pupils. For instance, one of such moves came after three months of postponement, when the Council announced August 4, 2020 as the kick-off date for the examination, expected to end on September 5. Minister of State for Education,Chukwuemeka Nwajiuba, who revealed this at the routine Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 briefing, said the examination would end on September 5, adding that after WAEC examination, the National Examination Council (NECO) and the National Business and Technical Examinations Board (NABTEB) would hold.

The schools, despite the various COVID-19 protocols and guidelines given by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19, and with series of meetings with stakeholders the resumption plans for schools were put on hold. For schools to reopen for all categories of students, first for the SS 3, JSS 3 and Primary Six pupils who are in terminal classes, the PTF said school owners should provide Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) such as hand watching facilities, alcohol-based hand sanitisers, face masks, referral thermometers, as well as ensure regular watching of hands in running water, use of sanitisers, wearing of face masks by all students and teachers, as well as maintaining of social/physical distancing in the classrooms and hostels. With the disruption to the school calendar, schools’ resumption had to be staggered between August and September for the students at the various levels in order to complete the school year, while in most cases third-term session was cancelled in many schools with students given automatic promotion to the next class. Faced with this challenge, the National Examination Council (NECO) Senior Secondary School Examination, which also had to be postponed several times, still has some of the subjects put on hold due to the ENDSARS protest. While the nation was yet to recover from the challenges posed by the outbreak of COVID-19, the EndSARS protest, which engulfed the country in October, also posed a great threat for the education sector.

The nationwide protest, which was hijacked by hoodlums, who destroyed government and private properties, leading to heightened insecurity across the country the management of the National Examinations Council, was forced to postpone the SSCE that was ongoing then indefinitely on Oct 26, 2020. The decision was said to have been taken by the NECO Governing Board at its Special Meeting, as it was imperative for the examination body to ensure the safety of the candidates.

NECO, in a statement, dated October 21, 2020 announced the rescheduling of some papers in the examination due to its inability to deliver examination materials to some states as a result of curfew imposed due to the protest, while students in the affected locations were unable to sit for the papers already scheduled in the examination time table.

“The Council was constrained to postpone the examinations indefinitely on Monday, October 25 2020 due to security challenges occasioned by the #EndSARS protests, which disrupted the smooth conduct of the examinations in some parts of the country,” the statement added.

Some of the subjects, which are still being postponed, include Paper I Computer Studies Practicals, Practical Chemistry, Commerce and Economics, which originally should have been written in October.

Worried by the second wave of coronavirus in the country, Lagos State on December 17 ordered the closure of all public and private schools in the state effective Friday, December 18, 2020 till January 4, 2021 for second term, while the Federal Government directed that no university or school should reopen for the New Year until January 18.

In view of the postponement of the SSCE examinations by WAEC and NECO, as well as NABTEB, many tertiary institutions in the country are yet to conduct their Post-Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (post-UTME) put on hold by the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB), which directed higher institutions to suspend admission process for fresh students, in order to allow the students to write their SSCE.

As part of the events that shape the year under review, admission into tertiary institutions (universities, polytechnics and colleges of education) has been delayed with the suspension of the conduct of post-UTME for new students into the institutions.

For instance, the management of the University of Lagos (UNILAG) has cancelled its post- UTME twice after announcing the date of the exercise, without fixing a new date in line with the directive of JAMB that universities should conduct their admission after the SSCE examinations. Meanwhile, following the ‘New Normal’ matriculation of new students, as well as convocation were conducted virtually/online in most universities with only few students and parents in most cases physically present in line with the COVID-19 protocols of social/ physical distancing.

Apart from disruption of school activities, the rising level of insecurity in the country, especially in the North, took its toll on the education sector with the abduction of over 300 students of Government Boys Science Secondary School, a boarding school in Kankara, Kankara Local Government Area of Katsina State on December 11 by a Boko Haram insurgents, who attacked the school where more than 800 pupils reside on motorcycles.

Though the schoolboys had been rescued by the government, this forced the Katsina State Governor, Aminu Masari to order immediate closure of all boarding secondary schools in the state. Piqued by the development and the need to ensure the safety of students in various schools across their states, other state governments in the North also ordered all schools to close as pupils and teachers were now being actively targeted by gunmen and kidnappers. Another major landmark of the year 2020 in the education sector was the approval of a special salary scale and new retirement age for Nigerian teachers by President Muhammadu Buhari.

The welfare policies for teachers, which has been described as “fundamental and far-reaching changes” was announced on October 5 during the 2020 World Teachers’ Day in order to breathe a new life into the teaching profession.

The President also raised the service year for teachers from 35 to 40 years, while retirement age was increased from 60 to 65 years. The Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu, who announced was to commemorate the World Teachers Day in Abuja, explained that the implementation of the new teachers’ salary scheme was to encourage the teachers in delivering better services The Special Salary Scale for Basic and Secondary School teachers, as well as other welfare policies, according to the President, was part of ongoing moves by the Federal Government to revitalise and reposition the teaching profession in the country.

A review of teachers’ development policies, the government said, had revealed huge gaps in quantity and quality of teachers at all levels of the nation’s education system, while the status and statute of teachers were currently at their lowest ebb. “The implementation of the new policies was to attract the best brains into the teaching profession and encourage teachers in delivering better services that would produce quality students who would, in turn, contribute to national development.

The government notes the emergency situation in our educational system with particular reference to the dearth of qualified and dedicated teachers to enhance the quality of teaching and learning at all levels of our educational system,” the President added. Similarly, the Federal Government, as part of the new policies, reintroduced bursary awards to education students in universities and colleges of education, and assurance of automatic employment upon graduation, payment of stipends to Bachelor of Education students as well as granting them automatic employment after graduation.

The Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund) was also directed to fund teaching practice in universities and colleges of education, as well as a special salary scale for teachers in basic and secondary schools including provisions for rural posting allowance, science teachers allowance and peculiar allowance. Besides, the government also approved the following incentives to motivate and restore the lost glory of teachers; building of lowcost houses for teachers in rural areas, sponsorship of teachers to at least one refresher training per annum, expansion of annual Presidential teachers and schools awards to cover more categories with outstanding winners to be considered for National Awards and National Productivity Order of Merit (NPOM) awards.

Others are prompt payment of salaries and other entitlements including consideration for first-line charge in annual budgets, timely promotion of teachers to eliminate stagnation, provision of loan facilities, free tuition and automatic admission for biological children of teachers in their respective schools to encourage and retain them in the system.

With the problem of COVID-19 pandemic, usual fanfare and activities that characterise the passing out of corps members undertaking the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), especially for the 2019 Batch ‘B’ Stream II, were absent given the situation of COVID-19 that required that the physical distancing protocol must be strictly adhered to.

In the place of the passing out parade, the corps members were assembled in batches of 10 at distribution point a time in open spaces for collection of their NYSC Certificates, which was staggered for a period of 10 days in compliance with the requirements of social distancing across all the states of the federation.

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