PHILIP NYAM examines the House of Representatives opposition to reopening of schools in the face of rising COVID-19 cases in the country
Amidst the spread in the number of Nigerians infected by the deadly coronavirus and sharp increase in the deaths from the pandemic across the country, primary, secondary and tertiary institutions in most states of the federation reopened on Monday.
The Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 (PTF) headed by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustapha gave the green light despite protests from some stakeholders. Although some states that are hard hit by the virus have suspended reopening of schools indefinitely over fear of putting the lives of pupils and students at risk, some are due to throw open their school gates in the next few weeks.
This has generated a lot of debate in the polity as stakeholders and parents are divided either for or against the reopening of schools. The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), which just suspended its almost one-year old industrial action, is a major stakeholder that is strongly opposed to the decision to reopen schools.
ASUU has persistently argued that reopening schools will put the lives of their members and students at risk, According to it, until adequate protective machinery is instituted, the students should be allowed to stay off the schools.
However, those in support of Federal Government’s reopening of schools have argued that if offices, markets and places of worship could be opened, why would schools remain closed for this long? Some have also pointed at the ongoing registration for the National Identity Number (NIN) by the National Identity Management Commission [NIMC], where COVID-19 protocols are flagrantly abused, yet children are being kept at home for fear of contracting the virus.
It was against this backdrop that the House of Representatives, not only joined the fray, but picked holes in the decision to reopen schools. The lower chamber’s Committee on Basic Education and Services led by Hon. Julius Ihonvbere (APC, Edo) at the weekend issued a strong warning calling on the Federal Government to shut down all schools for at least three months and tackle the spread of the virus to a manageable level before reopening schools. Ihonvbere, who had in a statement asked: “are we really prepared?” submitted that “the committee has received with some concern the decision of the Federal Government to reopen schools on January 18.
We are particularly concerned that when the infection rates hovered around 500 and under, schools were closed but now that it hovers well above 1,000 infections daily, schools are being reopened.
Why are we rushing to reopen schools without adequate verifiable and sustainable arrangements to protect and secure our children?” He further noted that “the committee fully appreciates the implications of continued school closure on the education sector and the larger economy and society. We also acknowledge that the pandemic would remain with us for a while and we must design ways to live with it.”
His statement read in part: “Similarly, we acknowledge the argument that most young persons have not been as affected by COVID-19 and many are asymptomatic. Yet,it does not mean they have full immunity against the virus. We also know that they would be working and interacting with adult teachers, administrative workers and other persons that do not live within the institutions.”
The House committee chairman argued that aside Lagos and a couple of other states, governments are unable to enforce COVID-19 protocols. According to him, people no longer wear facemasks or use sanitisers.
Public enlightenment campaigns have more or less stopped; merely saying they would adhere to the protocols is no guarantee. In the rural areas, the situation is worse. His position: “Our position is that in spite of the very comprehensive protocols established by the Federal Ministry of Education, not up to 10 per cent of our educational institutions have implemented five per cent of the protocols. In most of our primary and secondary schools nationwide, adequate furniture, water and other sanitation and hygiene facilities do not exit.
Many poor parents would require support with facemasks and sanitizers for their children. We have not heard of how this would be addressed” Apart from faulting the unimpressive preparations by the Federal Ministry of Education and the educational institutions, the House committee expressed serious concern about the process and sought for proper measures to be put in place. The committee said: “We doubt that teachers, instructors and school managers have been adequately trained and prepared to handle COVID-19 safety protocols.
We also know that adequate funds have not been provided to schools to cope with demands that accompany the new normal. “We would like to challenge the Federal Ministry of Education to first, independently monitor the extent of basic compliance with established protocols in all our schools and not just take words of state and local authorities as given.
“The lives of our children are worth much more than the interests and comfort of any politician or bureaucrat. It is only after a minimum 75% nationwide compliance that we can seriously talk about reopening schools.”
The committee equally maintained that “given that in primary and secondary schools in particular, there are no facilities for effective social distancing in the classrooms, part of the compliance requirements must be the introduction of morning and afternoon batches into the schools when they reopen to reduce overcrowding.”
It further said: “Special cleaning crews with sufficient sanitizers must be deployed to the classrooms before and after each stream. Hand washing before entering the classroom and use of sanitizer once seated must be made mandatory.
“The school feeding programme should be suspended and converted to sealable snacks to be distributed once classes are over. As a government that has committed to protecting the interests of the Nigerian people, it would be wrong to allow unprepared state governments, of which many did not take the pandemic too seriously anyway, to hoodwink or pressure it into this reopening game.
“The committee believes that if these and other critical steps are not taken, there should be a postponement by three months to enable the local and state governments put things in place adequately.
A word, they say, is enough for the wise.” In spite of the protest from the House, schools have resumed in most states including the Federal Capital Territory but as the representatives reconvene in plenary next Tuesday, there is the tendency that it may summon the Presidential Task Force and the Federal Ministry of Education to brainstorm further on the controversy trailing the reopening of schools.