COVID-19 AND REOPENING OF SCHOOLS

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The House of Representatives argues that the reopening of schools is ill-timed, writes Peter Kumu

Leadership is a tough job. It requires taking hard decisions that are mostly not politically correct to save the people and their future. The novel deadly COVID-19 that is ravaging the world which has cut down stars in their prime, the lowly and billionaires without exemption has tasked leadership capacity of public figures globally.

Leaders are in a dilemma of saving lives and ensuring livelihoods are secured. Both are interwoven and can’t be mutually extricated. Livelihood is needed for life’s sustenance but life, the greatest asset of all mortals must be preserved before earnings can be made.

Developing countries, Nigeria inclusive, who are grappling with myriad of physiological challenges prior to COVID-19 agree that a fresh total lockdown of the system will further exacerbate the fragile, precarious social, economic situations. Hunger pandemic will send many to early graves than the virus plague.

Meanwhile, the sudden spike in the number of cases and casualties in the wake of the second wave of the pandemic with deadlier strain which is already in the southern part of the continent, restraints, extreme caution and strict enforcement of non-pharmaceutical protocols should be maximally enforced.

We can’t afford to act otherwise considering the inadequate and greatly challenged Nigeria’s health system. Harrowing tales abound of how elites serving in government gasped for life to no avail because of non-availability of oxygen. If gold rusts what is the fate of iron?

So when the federal government insisted that kids must return to classrooms, the people’s chamber, House of Representatives strongly opposed the move as dangerous and ill-timed. Rather, the Gbajabiamila-led chamber proposed a three-month wait before opening schools.

Last Thursday, the federal government through the Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, despite outcry and legitimate concerns from well-meaning citizens, insisted that there was no going back on school resumption.

The government claimed that, “After extensive consultations with relevant stakeholders, including State Governors, Commissioners of Education, Proprietors and heads of institutions, staff unions and students, the consensus of opinion is that the resumption date of 18th January should remain, while parents and respective institutions must ensure full compliance with COVID-19 protocols including:-

One, compulsory wearing of facemasks by all students, teachers and workers in all schools. Two, temperature checks and hand washing facilities at strategic locations in all schools. Three, ensuring constant supply of water and sanitizers. Four, enforcement of maintenance of social distancing and suspension of large gatherings such as assembly and visiting days. Five, avoiding overcrowding, including limitations in class sizes and hostel occupancy. Six, availability of functional health clinics with facilities for isolation and transportation of suspected cases to medical facilities. Seven, adherence to all other non-pharmaceutical protocols, restrictions and containment measures as may be prescribed/ approved by the PTF from time to time.

In reality, the nation’s public education sector can hardly meet the safety requirements. Only a few elitist private schools in the cities of Lagos, Abuja, Port-Harcourt and Kano can afford the cost of materials and men to ensure adequate safety.

This concern was further echoed by the House of Representatives Committee on Basic Education and Services. The Committee chairman, Professor Julius Ihonvbere in a statement called for caution arguing that the nation’s education infrastructure cannot ensure adherence to COVID-19 safety protocols.

The statement read: “The Committee on Basic Education and Services, House of Representatives has received with some concern the decision of the federal government to reopen schools on January 18, 2021.

“We are particularly concerned that when the infection rates hovered around 500 and under, schools were closed but now that it hovers well above 1000 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?

“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. 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.

“Aside from Lagos and a couple of other states, governments are unable to enforce Covid-19 protocols. 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 rural areas, the situation is worse.

“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 exist.

“Many poor parents would require support with facemasks and sanitisers for their children. We have not heard of how this would be addressed. 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 of 75% nationwide compliance that we can seriously talk about reopening schools.

“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.

“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 to put things in place adequately. A word, they say, is enough for the wise”.

In addition to the position of the House Committee, smaller nations on the continent have closed schools until when cases subside. Rwandan and Malawian authorities have shut nurseries and schools on Monday as Coronavirus cases surge.

Kumu wrote from Port Harcourt