In preparation for the re-opening of educational institutions across the country, the federal government through the Minister of State for Education, Hon. Chukwuemeka Nwajiuba, had listed some conditions that every school must meet before they can serve as sites for education following the COVID-19 imposed hiatus. Interestingly, prior to this ministerial pronouncement, the Oyo State governor, Engineer Seyi Makinde had already announced a date for the partial resumption of some special categories of students which were at cross purposes with state’s Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT) directive. Confusion everywhere.
Thankfully, the government has opened up the economy via the phased easing of the lockdown and restrictions on various sections of our national life. When will it be the turn of our educational sector to get a breather, one must ask? While the government has responded to pressure from religious bodies to open the churches and mosques, truth be told, it cannot take such gamble on schools, especially those at the primary level if it truly cares about the life of the children who are dubbed tomorrow’s leaders. For, it is indeed premature to open them when all safety mechanisms, oversight processes and social education that needs to happen have not been put in place.
UNICEF estimates that around 1.6billion children and young people around the world are unable to attend school as a result of the COVID -19 pandemic. These numbers are unprecedented and they are with immense implications. There has never been a time in the world that such huge numbers of children would be out of school at the same time. Not even the pandemic of 1918 had that record of out of school children. The temporary closure of schools, as a measure to contain the spread of the coronavirus, has disrupted learning, leaving the academic calendar in shambles.
Whereas many countries have resorted to online learning, it remains a tall order for Nigeria whose educational structure was struggling to survive before COVID -19. No thanks to neglect by successive administrations. The impact of this health emergency is an indication of our lack of preparedness to combat unforeseen emergencies. As a people, we have never been prepared for any emergency. Hopefully, COVID -19 which is a health crisis has opened our eyes and provided us with an opportunity to re-think emergency education planning for all levels of scholarship.
The sad reality is that many children are not learning and cannot learn due to no fault of theirs. While some private institutions may have resorted to remote learning via the internet, the huge majority have remained in abeyance. High internet data costs, last-mile challenges, low internet penetration in many rural communities account for this state where we have found ourselves.
Prior to the pandemic, in many of these schools, pupils are unable to imbibe learning and character. The challenges of dilapidated classrooms, unkempt surroundings, lack of modern infrastructures to aid learning, outdated curricula and unmotivated cum poorly trained teachers are well documented. Now, consider that part of the condition for reopening schools which revolves around being able to have sanitation equipment when in reality, many of these schools are without toilet facilities and water. They rely on water from the stream and other polluted sources when in dire need of this critical resource. They have to “shot-put” when the need to obey the inevitable call of nature arises. In a country that was already grappling with a decrepit educational system, the situation leaves much to be desired, especially among public schools.
The pandemic induced closure offers us the opportunity to revamp the education of our children. Now is the time to overhaul the facility readiness of the schools. We cannot overlook the dire need to put procedures and measure in place. The importance of school safety and students learning cannot be overemphasized. Is it the children who are receiving classes under the tree, or sitting on the bare floor without desks and chairs and whose source of water is the stream near the school that should resume to school?
The use of a face mask for children is perhaps an exercise that is somewhat dead on arrival if we consider the behavioural tendencies of these young impressionistic minds. This is because wearing the face mask causes them to touch their faces more than when they do without it. Besides, the mask presents the unintended consequences of possible strangulation or choking among the children, especially the preteens. Experts have recommended that staying at home and physical distancing remain the best option to be protected from COVID -19, especially for children, who may not understand why they should keep away from others or touch things they shouldn’t. It is best to keep them at home where they are safe.
Moreso, many adults are still grappling with the routine of regularly washing their hands and maintaining social distancing. Is it now the children who barely understand the implications of such routine that would abide by the new normal? Besides, the capacity of these children to protect themselves is very much in doubt. Thus, we should not be in a hurry to re-open schools when the threat of COVID -19 is still very much glaring with the daily increase in the figures. Rather than hurriedly open the schools, COVID- 19 has presented an opportunity to overhaul our educational system, where there is an alarming rate of out-of-school children. Learning materials and a conducive atmosphere should be put in place. All the various health measures should be solidified and strengthened, it is only then that we can consider the re-opening the schools.
It is increasingly becoming inevitable that the new normal is coping with the coronavirus as part of our existence. We should however not sacrifice the leaders of tomorrow, who double as writers of tomorrow’s history on the altar of economic sustenance, collective survival and other mundane justifications.
Adeosun writes from Akure, Ondo state