Six months after the closure of the nation’s education system due to the outbreak of Coronavirus (COVID-19 in March, the Federal Government, last week, fixed October 12 for resumption of schools. But, the ongoing six-month-old ASUU strike, as well as SSANU and NASU warning strike will be a snag in universities’ resumption
FG: Schools to adhere strictly to COVID-19, protocols
NAPPS: Resumption long overdue
After several confusion and attempts to fix a resumption date for all educational institutions closed down at the wake of the outbreak of the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) in the country, as part of urgent measures to contain the spread of the virus, the Federal Government has fixed October 12 for reopening of schools. Despite the reopening of schools, students and parents are already counting their losses following the closure of all schools since March.
The Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu, who gave the nod for resumption of academic activities in all federal schools and higher institutions nationwide on October 12, directed state and private schools to work out the modalities for reopening of their schools.
The decision to reopen school six-month after their closure since March, according to education pundits, was premised on the flattened COVID-19 infection curve in the country, and the near zero rate of COVID-19 infections, particularly among students in exit classes that earlier returned to school to write for the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) between August and September. But, the resumption as announced is not without warning and caveat.
The Minister, however, warned schools to comply with all COVID-19 protocols and guidelines, and that any school that exposes its students to Coronavirus due to their negligence, was at risk of total closure.
As part of the confusion, the Minister of State for Education, Chukwuemeka Nwajiuba, had in July 1, announced that schools would reopen for students in exit classes, especially the Senior Secondary School (SS 3), Junior Secondary School (JSS 3) and NABTEB for them to write the SSCE conducted by the West African Examinations Council (WAEC), which had earlier been suspended since April, and the National Examination Council (NECO) and NABTEB.
He, however, listed six conditions that must be met by all schools for the resumption, and further asked heads of schools and tertiary institutions to start putting measures in place to meet the stipulated COVID-19 protocols and conditions.
The six conditions are decontamination of school premises, provision of hand-washing facilities, resizing of classes to accommodate social and physical distancing, procurement of infrared thermometer for body temperature checks and body disinfectants at all entering points in schools including the gates, hostels, classes and offices, among others.
Again, on July 6, Nwajiuba, at the daily briefing of the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19, announced that the Federal Government had agreed to reopen schools to allow students in exiting classes to participate in WASSCE earlier scheduled from August 4 to September 5. However, less than 48 hours, the Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu on July 8, while addressing State House Correspondents after the Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting, declared that the decision to reopen schools had been reversed in order to allow for further consultations. He insisted that the decision was based on the rising cases of the COVID-19 pandemic infection in the country with an average infection rate of 700 daily at the time
But, few days after, school owners were further given fresh directives to meet some specific guidelines and submit self-assessment reports on or before 29 July, 2020, to aid the pronouncement of schools resumption date, most especially to assist further consultations aimed at ensuring the safety of students and school staff when schools were reopened.
The guidelines covered the four thematic areas of “staying home and learning safely, before schools and learning facilities reopen, reopening process, and conditions for safety when learning facilities were reopened. At a webinar meeting between the Ministry of Education and Commissioners of Education of the 36 states of the federation, Nwajiuba had said Federal Government Colleges, otherwise known as Unity Schools, were ready to reopen on August 4 for exiting classes to hold revision classes and afterwards, sit for examinations.
According to the Minister, key officials of the ministry would embark on an assessment tour and inspection of schools across the country to confirm if they were safe to reopen for the exiting classes as proclaimed. Again while this was going on the PTF on September 3, directed all schools in the country to begin preparations to reopen within the next 30 days, as part of the next phase under the government’s gradual easing of the lockdown instituted in March.
The National Coordinator of the Presidential Task Force (PTF), Dr. Sani Aliyu, however, mandated all state governments to carry out risk assessments of both public and private schools as part of measures to monitor compliance to PTF guidelines for their safe reopening. He also directed all daycare and educational institutions to remain closed to in-person classes, even as he insisted that reopening of schools must be gradual and done in phases in order not to expose the general public and vulnerable groups (children) in particular to being infected with coronavirus.
Exactly 30 days after, the Minister of Education directed that all schools in the country should reopen for academic activities on October 12, but with strict adherence to the COVID-19 guidelines and protocols on schools reopening earlier released by the Federal Government to the schools.
Though, the state-owned higher institutions and secondary schools in Lagos State had since resumed in phases on September 12 and 21 respectively, educational institutions in Ogun State also resumed on September 21. Since September resumption of schools in Lagos and Ogun State, many other state governments had prior to the Federal Government’s announcement, fixed between Monday, October 5 and 12 for reopening of their schools.
Apart from the flattened COVID-19 infection curve, the decision to reopen the schools this time was said to have been reached during an exhaustive discussions and consultations with education stakeholders in the public and private sector, as well as international and development partners who helped to shape the decision to reopen schools.
The Minister said: “We have consulted widely with stakeholders in the sector, including the Association of Private School Owners of Nigeria (APSON), the National Association of Proprietors of Private Schools (NAPPS), Provost of Colleges of Education, Rectors of Polytechnics, Vice- Chancellors of universities, state Governors, our development partners, Commissioners for Education and other relevant international organisations.
“Consequent upon these consultations, we developed detailed guidelines for reopening our learning facilities. Taking the first step, we reopened schools for exit classes to take their national examinations. I am glad to report that in all our 104 Unity Schools/Federal Government Colleges, there has not been a single case of COVID-19 infection so far.
“The isolated cases we have had in other schools are minimal. It is gratifying to note that on the whole, there has not been a single fatality among the existing students. You may also have noticed that the infection curve nationwide has flattened considerably.
“In July 2020, when I stated that we will not reopen schools until the infection rate flattens, the country was recording an average of 400 infections daily. By the end of July and August, the infection rate peaked at an average of 700 cases daily.
But, since the beginning of September, we have witnessed a considerable decline in the rate of infections, now averaging 200 recorded cases daily. “Consequently, with the level of preparations put to test and the flattening of the infection curve, we have come to the conclusion that we have to review our earlier decision especially against the realisation that COVID-19 had come to stay and that we have to live with it.
“Consequently, after due consultations with the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, we have decided that all our 104 Unity Colleges should reopen on the 12th of October, 2020. State governments and private school owners will work out the modalities for the reopening of schools under their purview.”
The Minister also added: “I strongly urge school owners to put in place systems that meets the following protocols; safe distancing procedures, develop and display at schools simple contexts specific reference protocols on day-to-day actions to be operated in each school; conduct risk assessment with a view to understanding the gaps in the system that can increase the risk of transmission and make recommendations for addressing the gaps; safety and hygiene in all stages and phases of the school reopening process, sensitisation and monitoring procedures, ensure adequate WASH facilities across the school premises, encourage use of open spaces for gathering and promoting outdoor activities, regular temperature checks for all visitors coming into the schools using infrared thermometers, establish a staff/ students committee, regular surveillance, monitoring and enforcement of COVID-19 guidelines.
“Let me warn that any school owner that does not comply with these guidelines and an outbreak occurs in the school due to negligence, risks closure of the school. Be vigilant, strict and rigid in the implementation of COVID-19 protocols for the safety of our children, teachers and ourselves as we reopen schools.”
The National President of the National Association of Proprietors of Private Schools (NAPPS), Otunba Yomi Otubela, who described the Federal Government’s directive to reopen schools as long overdue, said many states had already reopened their schools two weeks ago, while many others will also reopen their institution before the October 12.
Although, the reopening of schools was long overdue, however, there is a strike challenge facing the Federal Government’s directive on resumption of public tertiary institutions for academic activities, as the reopening of the institution might suffer a setback.
This is as the indefinite nationwide strike declared by the university lecturers, under their group, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) since March 22, is yet to be called or suspended, as well as the warning strike by nonacademic staff of universities, and pending strike notices by other staff unions in the polytechnics and colleges of education system.
A former National President of the Colleges of Education Academic Staff Union (COEASU), Remi Makinde, had last month, chided the Federal Government for refusing to reopen tertiary institutions in order to avert the inception of the strike declarations made by almost all the workers’ unions in the education sector.
According to him, a responsive government would have stated in clear terms, strategies that would ensure safe schools’ resumption devoid of disruptions by meeting demands of unions in the education sector. Makinde had said: “We have a government that we wrote, gave ultimatum, complained and lobbied, yet there have been no reply or commitment. It has been a game of the deaf and dumb playing.
“ASUP, COEASU, SSANU, NASU and NAAT, every union has threatened to embark on strike, but the government is hiding under the fabric of not reopening schools. Probably the sense in that is so that when schools do not reopen the strike will not become public and effective. “The idle hands are already exposed and are a threat to the Nigerian community.
We cannot for long keep the students at home even with the consequences of the strike that the government is forcing the unions to go into.” Reacting to the October 12 directive on resumption of schools, the National President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi, said the strike by the union continues until the government meets the union’s demands despite the recent invitation to a meeting by the Federal Government to continue negotiations on the pending issues. He said: “We started out industrial action before the outbreak of coronavirus disease in the country. All the issues the union raised are yet to be addressed.
The government is free to open their schools, just like our members are also entitled to their dues. “As we speak, our members are being owed between three to six months of salaries. The government’s so-called fund saving platform, the Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System (IPPIS) is a colossal failure. Apart from that, the government is yet to take any step to revitalise the education sector among others.”
Meanwhile, less than 24 hours after the announcement by the Federal Government to reopen schools on October 12, the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) and the Non- Academic Staff Union (NASU) on Friday declared a 14-day warning strike, which began yesterday, Monday, October 5.
The nationwide industrial action, declared by the Joint Action Committee of SSANU and NASU, will no doubt hinder resumption of the students in public universities.
The unions in a statement jointly signed by the National President of SSANU, Samson Ugwoke, and General Secretary of NASU, Peter Adeyemi, the strike was premised on the inconsistencies of the Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System in the payment of the workers’ salary and the nonpayment of Earned Allowances.
Other contending issues as contained in the statement include “non-payment of national minimum wage and retirement benefits to the members; delay in the renegotiation of FGN/NASU and SSANU Agreements, as well as the non-payment of benefits to retired members, teaching staff usurping the headship of nonteaching units, neglect and poor funding of state universities.
According to the unions, the warning strike is a prelude to a full blown total and indefinite industrial action if the grievances, as highlighted by the statement, are not properly addressed by the government. Meanwhile, the warning strike is coming when ASUU is yet to suspend its over six-month strike due to unresolved crisis.
“Just as the government has given schools notice of resumption, our national leadership also gave us the notice to announce this warning strike over a month ago. After the two weeks, if nothing is done to address our concerns, we will meet and deliberate on the next line of action,” they said.
While many stakeholders have lauded the reopening of schools across the federation and described it as long overdue, anger is being expressed as some private universities mandated their students to carry out COVID-19 tests to determine their coronavirus status before they are allowed into the campuses.