Covid-19: Students, parents, proprietors, experts in limbo

Adamu

PAUL OKAH takes a look at the continued schools closure amidst the gradual easing of lockdown in the light of the concerns of proprietors and students, even as he aggregates the opinions of experts on the development.

All things being equal, schools in Nigeria may be re-opened anytime soon, following the gradual easing of lockdown and re-opening of the economy. However, one major topic on the lips of Nigerians is why students have been kept at home for more than three months, whereas religious centres and other business have been reopened since President Muhammadu Buhari and governors ordered lockdown in March, as one of the measures to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

In fact, it was a sigh of relief for many worshippers when state governments started announcing ease of lockdown, which was followed with the permission of social gathering, especially re-opening of religious houses for Christian and Muslim faithful to worship.

Expectedly, agitations from several quarters for schools to be re-opened have raised concerns, especially with proprietors lamenting the hunger without financial intervention from government even as students complain of neglect.

Nevertheless, investigations by Blueprint Weekend have revealed that the continual closure of schools is as a result of several factors.

Fear of protests

It is common knowledge that politicians recruit students in tertiary institutions whenever they want to protest against something that they feel is against their interests.

In fact, severally, the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) has been accused of being a political party of its own that has often risen in arms against the policies of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) that the government is not comfortable with, with pictures of parleys with governments always sending wrong messages.

In an interview with this reporter, a scholar, Mr. Nathaniel Joseph, said the federal government “is jittery about re-opening schools because students will be recruited by opposition politicians to protest against its policies,” citing an example of political developments in Edo state.

He said, “I am not surprised that schools are still on lockdown from federal and state governments. Government likes it that way because they don’t want to be distracted by students, especially NANS, which is known to always lend itself to be used by politicians to criticise policies of government, especially the opposition.

“It is common knowledge that NANS has since lost its relevance since it has been infiltrated by political groups and those willing to attack opposition government for a fee. Some few years ago, leaders of NANS were seen dining and wining with President Buhari at the height of the perennial faceoff between ASUU and the federal government. In fact, NANS sided with the federal government against ASUU on strike, leading to massive disenchantment and media war.

“Also, with the current situation of things in Edo, where Governor Obaseki is fighting for survival, it is safe to assume that students in the state would have been recruited to protest against Obaseki’s disqualification by the APC. But the state government can’t do that, since schools are closed. So, government envisaged everything and has continued closing down schools to avoid civil disturbances. Forget the excuses you have been hearing, there is really a political undertone to the situation.”

FG, ASUU face-off

Before the closure of schools over the Covid-19 pandemic, ASUU was engaged in a face-off with the federal government over payment of salaries of members and later embarked on an indefinite strike, which the executives of the union said on Tuesday this week “will continue indefinitely.”

However, many are of the opinion that the strike is not being felt in any way especially as schools are on lockdown and that the federal government is exploiting the situation to continue to hit ASUU below the belt.

In a chat with our reporter, a student of the University of Abuja, Rita Okoro, said government does not care about re-opening schools anytime soon since ASUU is already incapacitated and has nothing to fight for, especially as students and lecturers are locked down at home.

“Ordinarily, you would have been hearing so much noise from ASUU and so many other things if schools were in session. But with schools currently on lockdown, who even knows or cares about ASUU being on strike? Give it to government, they know how best to deal with opposition groups in order for the message to hit home and the pain felt.

“My concern is that students are always at the receiving end of the perennial faceoff between ASUU and FG. Do you know that students in private schools have not missed a thing? With virtual education, many of them have since written or commenced exams, yet students from public schools are being locked down at home. It is a matter of concern to us, so we plead to the federal government to allow us return to our classrooms as soon as possible,” she said. 

 School owners not influential

Politicians and religious leaders are known to always curry favours from one another as there are instances of religious leaders being asked to campaign for government during elections and are known to openly declare support for politicians.

However, many are of the view that school owners do not have such influence being enjoyed by religious leaders; hence the decision by government to close down schools.

An Abuja-based political analyst, Bello Musa, said the message is clear about the preference of the federal government to re-open religious houses, while closing schools.

He said, “No matter what you do, there is no way you can stop students and children from associating freely with one another. Government claims to be afraid of re-opening schools in order to avoid children contracting the Covid-19, but how possible is that? It is not feasible in any way.

“The truth is that many school owners are not as influential and connected as religious leaders, religion being the opium of the masses. Many times, if a religious leader is arrested for one crime or the other, all it would take is to call an influential member of his church or mosque on phone and that will be the end of the case as he would be rescued before prosecution could start, but that is not the case about school owners.

“The way I look at it, the lockdown will persist for quite sometime. This is because government feels it has nothing to lose even if schools are closed forever. Nevertheless, my advice is for school owners to pile up more pressure on government, just like religious leaders did few weeks into the lockdown. That way, government will see reason to back-track; otherwise, the situation will remain as it is.”

Wealthy children schooling abroad

Evidently, children of the wealthy study abroad and sometimes have nothing to do with the Nigerian education system; hence the argument that schools will be on lockdown for a long time to come, since most of the children of politicians are in Nigerian schools.

Speaking with this reporter, a teacher in Jahi, Abuja, who identified herself simply as Maryjane, said the situation of public schools will continue to deteriorate since the children of the rich do not patronise them.

“We know the truth in this country, but we are not comfortable saying it because of fear of victimisation. Public schools are not in any way of interest to both federal and state governments, because their children don’t attend them. Therefore, it can remain closed. We can only hope and pray,” she said.

Virtual sessions

Private schools are known to be immune to rot in the Nigeria education system and are often modelled after top schools outside the country; hence children of top government officials attend private schools in Nigeria if they are not comfortable with studying abroad.

As a result of the facilities put in place to ensure adequate learning in private schools, including the adoption of virtual learning, many Nigerians believe that government will not bother about re-opening schools, since many students, including a few wealthy ones, are already catching up through virtual sessions.

However, those in public schools say they are losing out because many of them are from poor homes and cannot afford to buy laptops, mobile phones and other gadgets, even as many teachers in public schools are not internet-compliant; so government hardly bothers. 

School owners’ plight

Recently, following the directive of the federal government that schools should remain shut, private school owners wrote to the government, saying they were hungry, depressed and in need of financial intervention to stay alive.

Speaking on behalf of private school owners in a protest letter, an educationist, Abdul-Ganiyy Raji, said it was time government at all levels extended financial support to private schools, to mitigate the effect of the lockdown.

He said, “It has now dawned on everyone that the current race is not a sprint, it is a marathon. Nobody can even prognosticate when schools will re-open in this country. It would be callous of the government to wait for owners and teachers of private schools to start dying of starvation before it comes to their aid, something should be done now.

“The nation cannot afford to sustain this prejudicial culture of silence over the huge impact of this lockdown on the livelihoods of school owners and private school teachers. We cannot afford to keep ignoring the welfare of private schools. We must remember that private schools survive primarily on earnings from their customers.

“We all know that schools have not collected third term fees from their customers. We are aware that all the sources of income of private schools have been blocked by the current lockdown. The government should please do something about private schools.”

He added: “No right-thinking Nigerian will criticise the government for the current closure of schools in the country. We cannot afford to endanger the lives of our children or the lives of their teachers and other individuals who work in schools.

“However, while this lockdown lasts, is anybody talking about how school owners are coping with the salaries of their workforce at this difficult time? Is anybody discussing how schools owners themselves are surviving and helping their family members survive during this lockdown? In Lagos where I live, schools were shut down as far back as March. As I write this article, we are almost at the end of May.

“Are we aware that some school owners have not paid March and April salaries? You can now imagine what will happen when payment of May salaries is due. Some private schools slashed their staff’s salaries as far back as March. When schools were first shut down, many school owners and teachers had predicted that the closure would only last for a few days or weeks.”

Appeals

On Sunday, during a briefing on Covid-19 update in the state, the Oyo state governor, Seyi Makinde, said schools in the state would be re-opened for selected students on June 29, like other sectors of the economy.

However, in a post he made on his Twitter handle on Tuesday, this week, the lawmaker representing Oyo central senatorial, Senator Teslim Folarin, said the planned re-opening of schools and government secretariat by the Oyo state government “remains an undue risk not worthy of consideration as it will amount to direct ways of subjecting school children to undue exposure to the deadly virus.”

“As an indigene of Oyo state, I am appealing to the state government to reconsider its decision on reopening of schools and not subject our children to undue exposure to the deadly virus. Our schools can reopen once our state shows a decline in positive Covid-19 cases.

“At that time, the state government should also advance clear protocols to which schools must abide after reopening. These include protocol on hygiene, self distancing and community support for contact tracing. The curve of positive Covid-19 test cases in Oyo state has yet to flatten, let alone decrease. Nations that have progressively re-opened their schools did so after experiencing a steady decline in positive cases of Covid-19. In addition, there were no spikes in positive cases of Covid-19 for a clear 25-30 days, prior to re-opening their schools. We have not reached that stage in Oyo state and there is no reason to engage in undue risk.”

He said further that: “Without sounding political, the state government needs to take decisions based on professional advice that is aimed at protecting lives rather than popularity. A good government must take tough decisions at critical periods such as this. The disregard for advice such as that offered by the World Health Organisation (WHO) who proclaimed the Covid-19 a pandemic in March, contributed greatly to the loss of lives in our state to the deadly virus. We cannot afford another decision taken on the need for political popularity over protection of lives, particularly as it affects our children. It is better to abide on the side of caution.

“Nations such as Israel and France that reopened schools in the same fashion being proposed in Oyo, immediately experienced huge spikes in positive cases of Covid-19 and had to indefinitely re-shut affected schools. By then, hundreds of pupils had been infected. We cannot afford such in Oyo.”

FG’s stance

Alarmed at the agitation and pressure from different quarters, the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on Covid-19 pandemic Monday expressed concerns over the decision of the Cross River state government to re-open schools on Tuesday, June 16.

Addressing journalists at the PTF daily briefing in Abuja, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) and chairman of the team, Mr. Boss Mustapha, said the PTF was also worried about the re-opening of viewing centres in Kano state. He said the current coronavirus situation in the country did not warrant re-opening of schools and viewing centres.

He said, “We have received reports that some states are contemplating the re-opening of schools, television viewing centres, sports stadiums and other places where large gatherings could take place. The PTF re-emphasises that it is not yet safe to do so and that utmost caution should be exercised. The PTF guideline should still be complied with while considering decisions of this nature.

 “We are also concerned about the disregard to social distancing. This is more prevalent in markets, motor parks and some places of worship. I wish to remind you that the PTF has already issued guidelines for mode of operations at places of worship and urge state governments to ensure strict compliance with PTF guidelines. We wish to re-emphasise that all relaxed measures are still subject to review and advisories issued are for personal and public safety purposes. The breach of the ban on inter-state travels is also a point of concern.

“Over the last couple of days, you must have observed that the daily figures of confirmed cases have been on the rise. This is an indication that we are conducting more tests across the country and that we are fully in the community spread phase. We, however, urge Nigerians not to panic but to cooperate with public health officials especially where community testing is on-going.”

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