ASUU: Conditions not only impossible, but difficult to meet
NUT: No parent wants his child to be used as a guinea pig
The Federal Government had last week reeled out six conditions for schools to meet before reopening educational institutions in the country. But, based on realities on ground, stakeholders are differ on the plans in view of the danger posed to the safety of students. REGINA OTOKPA reports
here is growing confusion and renewed anxiety in the country among stakeholders over the reopening of schools by the government.
No thanks to the upsurge in the cases of Corona Virus Disease (COVID-19) and the inability to flatten the coronavirus curve by the country.
Stakeholders, comprising parents, school owners, teachers and policy makers in the education sector have continued to express worry over the continued closure of schools, without any definite time to reopen the sector for normal activities to resume.
The Federal Government had on March 19 ordered an immediate closure of all educational institutions, including tertiary institutions, primary and secondary schools nationwide at the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, primarily to contain the spread of the virus ravaging the country.
By then there were only a total of 12 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the country, but since that time, the cases of recorded coronavirus infection as recorded by the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 have been persistently on the rise with current figure as at Sunday stood at 19,808 with 506 deaths and 6,718 discharged, fueling palpable apprehension among Nigerians.
Following the Federal Government order to close all schools, the junior and senior secondary school examinations (Senior School Certificate Examination (SSCE), Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE), conducted by the West African Certificate Examination (WAEC) and the National Examinations Council (NECO), as well as the National Business and Technical Board (NABTEB), which should have been conducted between April and June, were postponed indefinitely.
But, worried by this development in the face of the reality that students were losing out academically and to mitigate the effects on education, the government launched free e-learning portals and also broadcast learning classes for students in primary and secondary schools in order to keep them engaged for the period of the lockdown as necessitated by COVID-19 pandemic.
Already, several higher institutions across the country had adopted the online and virtual lecture sessions to teach their students, while many private schools introduced online classes for their students via mobile phones and other internet enabled platforms for real time classes as they are at home.
However, owners and operators of private schools have been mounting pressure and challenging government at state and federal levels on the urgent need to reopen schools for normal academic activities to resume.
But, piqued by development with the current over 20,000 active coronavirus cases, out of which more than 15,000 are on treatment at different isolation centres across the federation three months after the lockdown, the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19, last week, rolled out six conditions which must be met before schools and tertiary institutions could reopen.
Though, the pre-conditions was not unconnected with the agitations in recent weeks in several quarters, calling for resumption of schools, however, some stakeholders, especially parents are not readily convinced why the government should ordered the reopening of schools at this stage.
The six conditions, as announced by the Minister of State for Education, Chukwuemeka Nwajiuba during the 2020 Policy Meeting on Admissions to Tertiary Institutions in Nigeria by the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB), are decontamination of school premises, provision of hand-washing facilities, resizing of classes to accommodate social and physical distancing, body temperature checks and body disinfectants at all entering points including school gates, hostels, classes and offices, among other critical areas.
Besides, the government also mandated educational institutions to start putting measures in place to meet the stipulated conditions, and to direct all efforts towards maintaining the highest level of hygiene to protect students from contracting coronavirus.
However, the stipulated conditions, according to school managers, would require huge financial commitment on the part of school owners or administrators either in the government or private-owned institutions.
Few weeks ago, some proprietors, including legal luminary and Founder of Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti (ABUAD), Aare Afe Babalola (SAN) had canvassed reopening of the institutions, citing their readiness and available facilities on ground, as reasons.
Meanwhile, the National President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi, has described the government’s directive and conditions as a “tall order,” saying the conditions were not only impossible, but also difficult to meet.
“Obviously, most public schools and tertiary institutions lack running water, proper ventilation while students were admitted beyond their capacity, therefore forcing students to cram up in small classroom or laboratory spaces, and in some cases spill in high numbers clustered outside the classroom windows and doors to receive lectures,” he said.
Further investigations by New Telegraph, however, indicated that several other challenges in meeting the conditions particularly in public tertiary institutions, such as the challenges of dilapidated buildings, insufficient classroom facilities, lack of water facilities, inadequate hostel facilities, poor sanitation and hygiene system, among others cannot be ruled out.
For instance, most of the hostels built in the 70’s and 80’s to accommodate four students per room now house 12 or more students sleeping in shifts, while the lecture rooms are not any better as some lecture rooms spill above 50-capacity to now accommodate over 150 students per lecture.
According to ASUU, the situations in the institutions that had been begging for government’s attention for decades, have placed the safety of students at a crossroads if the learners should be called back on campuses before the virus is contained.
Ogunyemi further said: “These are the kind of scenarios we should think about when we are talking about reopening of schools and we think that government must come out clear with its plans to be seeing as having done their homework in public schools.
“They need to tell us how many millions of temperature kits, sanitisers, and hand washing bowls they want to provide. Also, details on the award of contract for decontamination of institutions must be properly laid out and not this garrison style of giving directives that schools must meet the conditions.”
He argued that while government should be concerned with addressing contending issues with the union before reopening universities, it was necessary to state in categorical terms, who should be responsible for meeting the conditions for reopening public primary, secondary and tertiary institutions.
The ASUU leader added: “If we take all education institutions that are to be supplied with body temperature testing kits, sanitisers which must be refilled from time to time, as well as hand washing bowls, who will bear the cost? If we need to decontaminate schools which also comes with its cost, who pays for that?
“These are issues which government must make clear pronouncement that it will supply. Certainly, we are not talking about public schools that have no running costs, when even universities will have to pay through their nose to do that.
“The government must seize the initiative and show us the way; not passing the bulk. When you pass the bulk to public institutions to whom are you passing the bulk? Is it that you are passing the bulk to the parents many of whom are already losing their jobs or to the higher institutions for students to pay additional fees when many of them are struggling to eke out a living, particularly with the negative impacts of COVID-19 on their parents’ sources of income as they find it difficult to cope with the challenges of the day.
“The government cannot merely give directives; they must tell us the role it wants to play in this. This is what we do in Nigeria; we try to hide from our shadows. The government should be responsible and to come out clean to outline the plans for the institutions to reopen.
“The government knows its purse and at least it has raised funds from the emergency mobilisation funds for COVID-19. If what they are planning to do is to channel some of the resources to public schools they should be able to tell us that they have budgeted X amount of funds towards addressing the needs in this sector.”
Also perturbed by the directive, the Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT) had accused government of playing politics with education; an act it said was unhealthy for the sector.
Secretary General of the NUT, Dr. Mike Ene, however, raised several questions bothering on government’s seriousness to adapt to the ‘new normal’ in the face of this health challenges.
The NUT said: “There are too many things that needed to be done, but is the government prepared for a teacher to take a class from morning till evening? Are they willing to hire more teachers when they have not paid those whom they hired and when the salary is paid late?
“There are states where teachers are owed between nine and 11 months. There are too many questions begging for answers because what supposed to have done yesterday, are what are being pursued today.”
Still on the union’s position, Ene, who reiterated NUT’s readiness, however, noted that the union is of the view that COVID-19 testing should be scaled up, while personal responsibility should be taken to save lives.
“The curve is rising every day and if one student is infected, everyone in that school is in trouble including the teachers. First and foremost, government needs to come out with workable solutions in terms of speeding up testing and scaling up treatment. No parent will want his child to be used as a guinea pig.
“If we don’t take responsibility for personal hygiene and social distancing, and if we cannot lessen the effect of infection, we may not get it right,” the union added.
Meanwhile, a faith-based private school in Lagos alleged that the government was already considering the options of schools using only eight weeks for third-term and to have a break before first term 2020/2021 academic session.
And, also to cancel the two months old third-term and instruct schools to use first and second term results to promote pupils to the next classes respectively, while final year students, who are expected to sit for various external examinations might be called to write their examinations shortly from now.
But, in its reaction, a source at the Federal Ministry of Education, said many options were being touted by various stakeholders, which are on the table for consideration.
Now, NANS, which spoke through its President, Danielson Akpan, is insisting that with the rising cases of the virus nationwide, it was safer for all schools to remain on lockdown.
According to the union, going by the manner in which students live communal lives on campuses reopening of campuses at this period is practical impossible.
“Once one student has the virus others will contract it in few days and that is going to triple tremendously once school reopens,” Akpan added, saying: “Are we going to ask some students not to resume or are the lecturers going to be paid to break the classes into sessions and repeat the same lecture? The possibility is slim.”
He insisted: “With this prevailing situation, I can tell you authoritatively that it is better for students to stay at home for now because the day schools reopened the numbers of coronavirus infection will increase astronomically to over 1,000 daily and the country does not have the facilities, vaccine or drugs to manage such surge.
“We need to stay alive to pursue a better life not to risk contracting the virus and help in spreading it very fast.”
Unlike the public schools, where inadequate funding is a major challenge, the private school owners seem to be ready to reopen their institutions.
According to the National Association of Proprietors of Private Schools (NAPPS), Federal Capital Territory (FCT) chapter, almost the schools were already purchasing infrared thermometer/temperature scanners and hand washing stations at reduced rate through the help of their cooperative.
Private schools in the FCT, the association noted, had already endorsed the practice of frequent hand washing as a culture to forestall contacting the infection within the school premises.
President of FCT NAPPS, Olusola Bankole, who said that the government’s conditions were a walk over for private schools, noted that a seven-point protocol on resumption of schools had earlier been submitted to the FCT Education Secretariat.
He said: “It is the government schools that are the problem because they need to make money available to put public schools in place. All the things required are already being put in place with the hope that the government will help to decontaminate our schools and provide some palliative to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, which is greatly being felt by private school owners.
“We probably need a few days for some of our members to purchase some of these equipment if they have not been able to do so. If they give us one week to resume, all private schools will be ready to reopen.”
But, ASUU has warned private schools to tread with caution to avoid regrettable decisions, saying “we may not be able to know their capacity, but at the same time they should not deceive themselves.
Ogunyemi noted: “If they think they cannot cope let them speak out. Public health is in the interest of everyone and we believe strongly that the health situation of private schools and other institutions should also be of paramount interest to government.
“Above all, government must do their homework well in order to ensure that if they reopen schools today, they will not be forced to close them down again.”
He further urged the Federal Government to avail this opportunity to wield its commitment to weed out mushroom schools springing up in every nook and cranny of the country.
“You will see that because public primary schools are not in good standing, private nursery primary and secondary schools are springing up even when many of them do not have what it takes to run as institutions.
“We need to take a holistic approach in looking at the situation. Public health is for all of us but those institutions that do not deserve public support should be pulled down. Mushroom institutions should not be allowed to endanger the health and well-being of the people.”