With the Government’s approval on reopening of schools, different states have revealed tentative dates which schools are to resume for the commencement of academic activities, while a state like Lagos already permitted tertiary institutions to reopen on September 14, 2020. However, there are still reasons for concerns. On the one hand is the low compliance to the health and safety protocols as Nigeria still records daily COVID-19 cases, and on the other hand is the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU)’s demand that its conditions should be met by the Federal Government before concurring with the resumption directive. Notwithstanding, there is a need to approach the resumption of schools – especially tertiary institutions – with caution.
Calling for caution, the Chairman of ASUU, University of Ibadan chapter, Prof. Ayo Akinwole, recently condemned the move by the Government to reopen schools in the country. The premise on which he formed his opinion is based on several reasons which has plagued tertiary institutions in Nigeria. For instance, he stated the issue of overcrowding in facilities on campus, insufficiency of certain amenities like clean water, among others.
Undoubtedly, these are valid reasons to worry. Recall also that in South Africa schools reopened in June when authorities decided to ease lockdown restrictions, but in July, there was a surge in the number of cases which led to the closure of schools again. In an address, South Africa’s President, Cyril Ramaphosa stated that, the current academic year will be extended beyond the end of 2020 due to the disruptions caused by the pandemic. In the same vein, schools in Israel were reopened on 17th May 2020, due to a decline but within two months of reopening, several teachers and students had been quarantined which further led to a closure of schools again in other to curtail the spread of the disease.
Meanwhile, the Director-General, Office of Education Quality Assurance, Lagos State Ministry of Education, Mrs Abiola Seriki-Ayeni, disclosed that the state government will not hesitate to shut schools if there is a spike in COVID-19 cases after the reopening of schools. She further admonished schools to have qualitative safety plans that would help protect students, teachers and workers when schools reopen in the state.
Also laudable are the new guidelines recently released by the Federal Government. The guidelines for schools include, conducting COVID-19 risk assessment every week, local governments and states were directed to conduct monthly and quarterly COVID-19 risk assessment in schools respectively, schools are to set up school health teams including teachers and learners that would facilitate implementation of the safety protocols in schools. LGAs and States have been advised to set up multi-sectoral school health committees dedicated to supporting and monitoring the implementation of safety protocols in the school. The assessment will determine the schools’ level of compliance with safety protocols including physical distancing, hand-washing and the use of face masks, whose violation can put students at risk of COVID-19.
While all these are great initiatives, it is pertinent to address the fundamental issues and answer some serious questions. For tertiary institutions, are these institutions well equipped with the required infrastructures and amenities to ensure students stay safe and healthy? What are the measures on ground in case students contract the disease? Will classrooms be fumigated before reopening? Are there learning alternatives for sick students? The people are yet to get answers to these questions and many more unasked questions.
On the other hand, there is the strike action which ASUU embarked on since the March 23, 2020. One would think that with all that has happened globally in the past months, ASUU would rethink its strategy in approaching the Federal Government on its demands. After reopening of schools, ASUU decided that lecturers will not be resuming to work yet because its demands have not been met by the Government. The demands which includes a review and implementation of the University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS), the software developed by ASUU to replace the federal government’s Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS) and the provision of adequate facilities in the universities that would curtail the spread of the COVID-19.
While the latter is a just demand from ASUU at this time, the former may be subjected to further discussions without holding on to it as a basis for not returning to the classrooms. Ultimately, prolonged closure of tertiary institutions will be incredibly detrimental to the learnings of students, especially those in public institutions, as they have more to lose if the stay at home persist, unlike their counterpart in private institutions who would forge ahead in life.
To avert a looming disaster, just as the Oyo state Government has planned a shift in learning sessions for primary and secondary school, tertiary institutions should also adopt a system that works for both lecturers and students, while also adhering to the safety protocol. The public also cannot stop appealing to the Government to take tertiary institutions seriously and also provide adequate funding necessary to keep them functional at a time like this.