I argued last week why schools should not reopen until September 1, 2020. The basic reason is that the transmission of COVID-19 in various communities across the country is on the increase. Worse still, the outcome is at present so unpredictable that no permanent arrangements can be made about the immediate future, not least about reopening schools.
Here’s how the Secretary to the Government of the Federation and Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, Boss Mustapha, put it to a Senate Committee barely 48 hours ago: “I must say that the virus is still very dangerous. We have not peaked; we have to meticulously plan. There is no timeline; that is why money is not being thrown at it just because it has been released … We don’t know how long this will take us. Even the budget that the National Coordinator mentioned is for a period of six months. We do not know how long it will take us”.
Knowing what we know today about the behaviour of the COVID-19; the incredulity of many Nigerians about the virus; and the non-compliance of most Nigerians with the WHO-supported mitigation measures established by the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control, it will be foolhardy to think of reopening schools earlier than September. Neither the science not the data of COVID-19 in Nigeria today leads us to think of reopening schools soon.
Even in advanced countries, such as the United Kingdom, which hurriedly reopened some primary schools, have had to recant. Many of Britain’s primary schools vowed not to reopen, while the discussion about reopening secondary schools have not even started.
Some universities in the UK, such as Cambridge University, have even cancelled in-class meetings (save for a few exceptional cases) and moved classes wholly online for the 2020/21 academic session. Some American Universities, such as the 23 campuses of the California State University system, have followed suit.
There are three problems with reopening schools in Nigeria, where many dormitory rooms are as overcrowded as classrooms. First, the infrastructure for maintaining physical distancing and washing hands with soap every now and then is not available in most schools.
Second, parents, teachers, and students often come from different parts of the country to many of the nation’s schools, especially in the cities. With the confession of the PTF that Nigerians are refusing to show up for testing, who knows what many of them will bring to the schools, if they were reopened while the infections are spiking without an end in sight?
Third, apart from talking about planning for a staggered reopening of schools at some point in the future, what exactly has the federal and state ministries of education done in terms of preparations? Are there enough masks for the schoolchildren? What about PPEs for the teachers, administrators, and other school aides?
What role are teachers playing in the government’s plans to reopen schools, whenever it happens? Have federal and state governments discussed with teachers and parents the social, psychological, and financial needs that should be met before schools are reopened?
As for the universities, the idea of online learning is nothing more than self-deception on the part of government and many universities in the country, because neither the infrastructure nor the trained personnel is available in most public universities. Even in private universities, such as Elizade University, which boast of successful online classes during the ongoing pandemic, the percentage of students who are able to participate effectively ranges from 30 to 70 percent.
If the situation could be that bad in the universities, imagine how poor it could be in primary and secondary schools. That’s why the idea of radio, TV, or online learning for primary and secondary schools during the ongoing pandemic is nothing more than a big joke. Of course, the government’s good intention should be acknowledged. Nevertheless, it is an intention that was never backed by necessary and appropriate resources. For students to learn profitably online, they should have been trained to do so during normal school time, not dumped on them in an emergency.
A critical step toward reopening the universities is being taken by the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board this month. The 2020 Policy Meeting for all tertiary institutions will hold online this year on June 16, 2020 out of respect for the NCDC’s COVID-19 protocol that prohibits large gatherings. The process of admission for 2020/21 follows the policy meeting and it traditionally takes three to six months from that date. It is at that meeting that heads of various institutions will agree on cut-off points for admission into various categories of tertiary institutions.
The critical question now is about those who have to take final exams, especially school-leaving and graduating exams. These are the ones I had in mind for a September reopening, and that only if it is possible. Schools could be open between September and December for such students to study for, and write, their exams, while the 2020/21 in-class academic session could begin in January 2021, with a modified school calendar of not more than 12 weeks per semester. In that case, the 2019/20 academic session would have been extended to December 2020 for final year students and lost by others to the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, this is a special circumstance to be negotiated with parents, teachers, and students by federal and state governments as well as proprietors. It will be unwise to simply assume that we should just move on like that as we are wont to do in Nigeria.
At this juncture, it is necessary to address a lingering question on many parents’ and students’ mind regarding this year’s WASSCE and NECO exams postponed owing to COVID-19. To the extent that in-class meetings are required for these exams. I don’t see any of them taking place before September 1.
A similar question is also on the minds of many University Vice Chancellors and Registrars. Some of them have been contemplating online final exams for their students. This is possible for those who have the infrastructure for mass video coverage, such as Webex, Zoom, Google Suite, and so on, to monitor the students. The problem, though, is that no one can guarantee that all students will have the necessary resources at their end to write online exams.