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School Resumption: Students, lecturers caution FG against reopening schools without proper planning

There is a feeling of disquiet currently growing among students of tertiary institutions as the Nigerian government contemplates the idea of reopening schools. Although schools, if reopened, will have to comply with certain safety guidelines, the thoughts are nevertheless coming at a time the country is witnessing an increase in the number of coronavirus cases. Nigeria is currently the third country in Africa with about seven per cent of the continent’s confirmed cases.

The Minister of State for Education, Emeka Nwajiuba, mulled the possibility of school resolution at the daily briefing of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 (PTF). He disclosed that his ministry would soon publish post-COVID-19 guidelines for school as the government is working in tandem with experts and the World Health Organisation (WHO) before schools can resume.

Since the outbreak of coronavirus pandemic, schools have been forced to close across the globe to contain the spread of the virus. Whilst some countries have since transited their knowledge delivery platforms to virtual space, resumption of academic activities remained a nightmare for students in Nigeria after schools were hurriedly shut down over eight weeks ago.

Some colleges and universities in the US have abandoned in-person classes in favour of remote learning as part of efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19. Some private universities in Nigeria have also embraced virtual learning, deploying platforms like Zoom, Google classroom, Telegram, and WhatsApp to engage students in lectures, tests, assignments, and other academic activities, Unfortunately, government-owned institutions, some of whose lecturers have embarked on industrial action since March, are immersed in a deafening silence; of hopelessness and uncertainty.

There have been calls by Nigerians, including Chief Afe Babalola SAN, that schools should be reopened while the world continues to seek ways of overcoming the pandemic. The calls have now been intensified as the federal government allows the reopening of religious centres.

Some of the precautionary measures recommended by Chief Afe Babalola(SAN) requires that schools establish residential accommodations for all students including most, if not all staff. Parents are also required to provide medical evidence certifying that their wards are fit to resume academic work. They are also expected to convey their wards in private vehicles or other means of transportation that complies with social distancing.

This reporter, however, conducted a feasibility survey on various social media platforms asking students to appraise the preparedness of their schools based on some of the recommendations made by Chief Afe Babalola(SAN) as well as their own readiness.

The survey which was exclusive to students in tertiary institutions got a total of 70 responses from students in both private and public Nigerian tertiary institutions. 60 per cent of the respondents maintained that the government cannot meet up with some of the requirements prescribed by the legal luminary.

Also, about 56 per cent of the students say neither their parents nor guardians will be able to comply with the recommendations. 37 per cent of the respondents agree that some parents have the means to convey their wards in private vehicles or other means of transportation that complies with social distancing.

Majority of the respondents (79 per cent) are of the view that tertiary Nigerian tertiary institutions have no facilities that can allow efficient testing and tracing of students and staff in cases where any of them becomes infected with the coronavirus. Only 19 per cent opine that schools are well equipped to handle and monitor cases of coronavirus.

The survey further reveals challenges envisaged by students if the government decides to mandate virtual learning as a replacement to in-person learning. Some of the challenges envisaged include poor internet connectivity, digital illiteracy, epileptic power supply, and data subscription. All of these according to the survey could stifle learning as well as causing some students to become excluded from learning processes. About 41 students, representing 58 per cent, said they are not equipped with the tools and knowledge required for virtual learning, while only 28 students, representing 39 per cent claim to possess the requisite skills and tools.

“We Don’t Have What It Takes To Reopen Our Schools”

In Nigerian public schools, it is common for lecture halls to overflow with students. A lecture hall of about 600-person capacity could be billed to house over 1000 students at once.  But with the new order of things requiring social distancing, of at least 2meters in-between two people,  what better arrangements are schools making? Do public schools have the infrastructure to support resumption amidst the pandemic?

Prof Idowu Olayinka, Vice-Chancellor, University of Ibadan, in a text message interview granted CAMPUS REPORTER, says reopening of schools amidst Covid-19 pandemic might amount to a stab in the back. Citing the surge in the number of recorded cases across the country, he stated that such a decision could only be made when the country has outrightly flattened the curve of the virus.

Due to the absence of the essential learning facilities and the poor state of the existing infrastructures, enforcing social distancing and other safety measures as recommended by public health agencies, Prof Olayinka said, could be a myth.

He, therefore, said he agreed with the stance of the Minister of state for education that schools be reopened in phases, adding that such arrangements would mitigate the transmission of the virus.

“I align with the position of the Honourable Minister of Education (State) a few days ago whereby he said the re-opening of educational institutions will be done in phases, especially in terms of ensuring social/physical distancing. We need to take a critical look at the available infrastructure.

How am I going to pack 2,000 students into the Central Bank Lecture Theatre for a 100 level Physical Chemistry class and ensure safe distancing, for example? I have to do the cost of providing hand-sanitizers in all lecture theatres, administrative offices, and our 15 Halls of Residence on a sustainable basis.”

He, further, pointed out that the inability of universities to accommodate all students could muddle prompt responses deserved also by non-residential students. He reiterated that university health centres have to be strengthened to prepare them ahead of resumption.

“To further complicate matters, the University of Ibadan is not fully residential. We can only accommodate about 30% of our student population. How do I monitor the CODIV-19 status of the remaining majority of our students who live in Agbowo, Orogun, Ojoo, Sango, and Mokola and other parts of Ibadan Metropolis? At the least, we need to strengthen our University Health Service to be in a position to provide a rapid response. They are doing a great job already no doubt but they need additional human and material resources to cope with this pandemic.”

Like Prof Olayinka, Dr Adeola Egbedokun, OAU ASUU chairman, stressed that Nigerian schools should remain shut in the middle of the pandemic owing to the age-long neglect education has been wallowing. The lecturer of Educational Technology revealed that no public schools can boast of adequate facilities to accommodate the virus, and the government should not attempt to play politics with students by reopening schools.

“Nigerian schools, especially public schools, do not have what it takes to reopen within the next two weeks. The reasons are very obvious. I am not aware of any public primary or secondary school that has access to water supply, let alone have access to wash-hand basins and daily supply of soaps for handwashing.

If that is the case, then hand sanitizers will be an extreme luxury. Can you imagine a school that is littered with dilapidated buildings resuming in two weeks to put in place or adhere to any safety measure that will prevent children from COVID-19?” he asked, rhetorically.

The insensitive long years of neglect of these public schools do not present any justification for risking the precious lives of innocent children. We should not play any nonsense politics with their lives.”

Also, Dr Muhammad Tahir, a lecturer in the Department of Modern European Languages and Linguistics, UDUS, argued that Nigeria has endlessly fiddled with the growth of the education sector that the pandemic caught the sector offhanded. According to the Associate Professor of African literature, development, especially in the education sector, cannot be achieved overnight as he heaved that “Nothing done in a hurry endures in its fulfilment.”

“Nigeria had the last sixty years of self-government in which to decide its destiny, but it procrastinated. Covid-19 pandemic is payback time for Nigeria’s procrastination on real development over the years. Development, especially in the education sector, is not an object to be bought off the market shelves of some Chinese shops; it takes years of strategizing and re-strategizing. You cannot now choose to ‘hurry’ us up the path of development. You don’t play ‘catch up’ with development in this fashion. Nothing done in a hurry endures in its fulfilment.”

Complementing Professor Afe Babalola’s recommendation, Dr Tahir agreed schools should be reopened provided that it would be “staggered”. Here, final year students who were forced to go home while preparing for their final examination should resume first, take their examination, and vacate the university within two to three weeks. “And thereafter, the next level of students that will resume shall be fresh students who will undergo the same set of tests like those of final year students. The resumption of other levels of students shall be staggered.”

Online Learning To The Rescue, But Nigeria Did Not Prepare For The Storm

According to internet world stats, Nigeria ranks sixth among countries with the most internet users in the world.  Within ten years, the number of internet users in the country flared up from 200,000 users in 2000 to 126,078,999 users with an estimated population of 206,139,589 as of the first quarter of 2020 (Q1, 2020), representing a growth increase of 63,000% in the number of internet users between the years under review.

With an estimated population of 206,139,589 million Nigerians, 61% of the population are active internet users, but the country still lacks the essential facilities to aid the transition to e-learning. PREMIUM TIMES reported that out of the 43 federal universities in the country, only nine were certified to operate both conventional and open and distance learning. Whilst two state universities were licensed, only one private university out of the 79 private universities in the country was given approval.

For Egbedokun, online learning would have furthered academic activities since the government ordered the closure of school to contain the spread of the virus. He, however, argued that most of the public universities in the country are not equipped for online learning.

“Online learning is a very veritable platform for instructional delivery. But I think it has to be said without mincing words that the pedagogy for these modes of teaching differs from the pedagogy for face to face. These modes require some infrastructure and facilities that are present with us but are never enabled.

Where is the electricity? Where is the internet? Where are the trained facilitators? Where are the workstations? Where are the modules? Where are the Instructional online Designers? I can go on and on with those pertinent questions. I believe that there should be a genuine and sincere post-COVID-19 Nigeria. But now, we do not have what it takes to deploy e-learning. We have never made any preparations.”

Apart from the essential facilities, Prof Olayinka advanced there is a need for a thoroughbred policy that would address the peculiarity of e-learning in Nigeria, including tremendous investment in technology. This, according to him, could be achieved through partnership with private tech companies to ensure the sustainability of virtual learning in the country.

“Virtual learning is the in-thing globally now and we cannot run away from this best practice. However, we have to put in place some basic things including but not limited to an e-learning policy as well as additional investment to strengthen our ICT infrastructure.

There is a need for continuous training and re-training for staff and students on the utilization of various technologies for teaching, learning, and research. We need an e-learning policy such that whatever we do to mainstream e-learning in the University is sustainable and not merely ad-hoc.”

Over the years Nigeria’s education has remained under-served, prompting many Nigerians to question the abysmal allocation of funds to the sector below UNESCO recommendation of at least 15-20 per cent in the national budget of developing countries.

In UNESCO’s “Education for All, EFA, 2000-2015: Achievements and Challenges” report, the UN organ proposed that “government should spend between four per cent of GNP on education, and within government budgets, between 15 per cent and 20 per cent should be earmarked for education.”

Contrarily, Nigeria’s funding for education continued to shuttle between the region of four to seven per cent of the national budget over the past four years. In 2018, the country budgeted 605.79bn to education, representing 7.04 per cent of the national budget; 620.5bn, representing 7.05 per cent the following year.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government had reviewed the 2020 national budget to address the fiscal reality of the pandemic. As such, the total budget size of 10.59tn, previously passed by the national assembly was cut by 84.71bn. With less than one per cent reduction, the budget undercuts development priorities with a massive cut in education, Dataphyte reports. This, despite one in every five of world’s out-of-school children being in Nigeria. The country currently harbours about 13 million – the highest in the world.

Dr Tahir is however optimistic that the pandemic could upturn the utter neglect education has been subjected over the years. He noted that the pandemic unsparingly spotlighted the rottenness, of which the government has been playing hide-and-seek, and that it would be thoughtful to exigently draw a blueprint that will redefine learning in the country.

“COVID-19 pandemic, despite its devastation on our psyche, and the death of many Nigerians, unfortunate as this is, remains a rude reminder to both the authorities and the people that we cannot continue to pretend to play ‘catch-up’ with the rest of the world when we have not even joined in the race.

The present state we found ourselves as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic should be a rude awakening to the authorities that life is just no longer predictable; the seemingly ‘normal’ may in no time turn ‘abnormal’ without the slightest indication. We must at all times prepare against unmitigated eventualities like the present pandemic. When this is done, our learning and teaching protocols will incorporate all known and effective virtual knowledge delivery platforms. We won’t have to ‘migrate’, we will always be there.”

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