ERC POSITION ON FG’S ILL-THOUGHT DECISION TO PARTIALLY REOPEN SCHOOLS ON AUGUST 4, 2020
RE-OPENING OF SCHOOLS WITHOUT AN INDEPENDENT ASSESSMENT BY TRADE UNIONS TO CONFIRM SCHOOLS’ COMPLIANCE WITH COVID-19 SAFETY PROTOCOLS CAN PUT TEACHERS AND STUDENTS IN DANGER
* ERC REITERATE ITS EARLIER POSITION THAT SCHOOLS SHOULD ONLY BE REOPENED AFTER AN INDEPENDENT COVID-19 TASK FORCE COMPOSED BY TEACHERS, STUDENTS AND PARENTS HAS ASSESSED SCHOOLS’ READINESS
Following several weeks of policy summersault and contradictory statements, the Federal Government through the Ministry of Education has issued a new declaration asking all secondary schools in the country to reopen and resume academic activities for final year students on 4 August 2020. The resumption is meant to allow the final year secondary school students partake in the West African School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) scheduled to commence on 17 August 2020.
However as soon as this declaration was made, timetable for other examinations have immediately surfaced. This include the Senior Secondary School Certificate Examinations (SSCE) organized by the National Examination Council (NECO) for SS3 pupils billed to commence on October 5 and end on November 18 2020, the National Business and Technical Examination Board (NABTEB) examinations scheduled to start on September 21 and end on October 15, 2020, the National Board for Arabic and Islamic Studies (NBSIS) examination planned to commence on September 23 and end on October 17, 2020, National Common Entrance Examination (NCEE) into Unity schools to hold on October 17, 2020, Basic Education Certificate Examinations (BECE) for JSS 3 pupils also conducted by NECO will start on August 24 and end on September 27, 2020 etc. All these indicate the magnitude of the situation. It means that even though it is a partial reopening, nevertheless tens of thousands of students and teachers will be in school over the next few months in the midst of a raging pandemic.
To show how ill-thought the decision to reopen schools is, government is by this declaration giving students, a large majority of whom have stayed at home for over 4 months without any real opportunity to study, just two weeks to prepare for the WASSCE examination that would commence on August 17. Even many schools had not completed the second term before schools were closed following the coronavirus outbreak. In addition, the third term has not been held at all which means many teachers have not even completed the syllabus.
Meanwhile, the so-called online class which attempted to fill the void during the lockdown is only fully accessible to children from middle class and well-off families. In reality, the majority of children from the poor working class background have not been able to derive the full benefit of the online classes because of high cost of data, poor internet coverage, unavailability of android phones, lack of an adult around to guide them while the parents are at work, absence of regular electricity supply etc. Some teachers in Lagos state who have been involved in teaching school children via WhatsApp have reported about how over 50 students may be registered for the class and only 2 or 3 actually responds to answer questions something which shows that many do not pay attention to the teaching even if they are able to come online. It is however a different ball game for school children in rural areas as many may not even have heard of online classes since the lockdown started. Therefore should WASSCE be written in this kind of situation, mass failure may be the eventual outcome.
In view of this decision which we strongly believe has been taken without due concern for the safety of teachers and students, we of the Education Rights Campaign (ERC) reiterate our earlier position that schools should only be reopened whether partially or fully only after the unions in the education sector acting through an independent COVID-19 task force composed of teachers, health professionals, students and parents have certified schools to be ready. By readiness, we mean compliance with comprehensive safety protocols necessary to ensure that school reopening does not endanger students and teachers. We do recall that a major reason the Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu overruled the Minister of state about three weeks ago and opposed school reopening was because, in his own words “it is not safe to reopen schools now” (Vanguard 8 July 2020). To the best of our knowledge, nothing fundamentally has changed in the preparedness of the schools between the first week of July and now to warrant a reopening of schools.
Except for a few token steps like fumigation, hand sanitizers and hand washing devices, there is no evidence to show that more crucial provisions required to keep teachers and students safe while in school have been met in a majority of public and private schools across the country. So far, a majority of public schools still parade, as it was before lockdown, the same dilapidated school buildings with windows blown off, collapse of roofing and ceilings and overcrowding in contravention of the 30 pupils to a teacher ratio. To this day, there are schools which have inadequate chairs and desks with many students sitting on the bare floor, disused vehicle tires, cement blocks etc. Up till now, many public and private schools do not have running water while the sanitary conditions are next to nothing.
Therefore and to the extent that these poor conditions persist in schools, as far as we are concerned, the decision to reopen schools on August 4, 2020 may amount to nothing but an invitation to disaster. It is in this light that we find condemnable the position of the National leadership of the Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT) which acquiesced to school reopening on the basis of the claims of state commissioners for education without carrying out an independent enquiry to ascertain the level of preparation and readiness of schools. According to the General Secretary of Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT) Dr. Mike Ene who was part of the meeting where a decision was reached; “Following the assurances we got, we have to concur…Some commissioners said they are 80 percent ready and that even NCDC has given them certificates of readiness,” (Daily Trust, Abuja, 28/7/20).
The statement above credited to the NUT General Secretary is both shocking and unfortunate. It shows that the NUT leadership is basing its agreement on what the commissioners for education said and not the result of an independent NUT audit of schools preparedness. In other words, the question of the safety and potentially the lives of NUT members, hundreds of thousands of teachers across the country, is to be decided by the empty promises of functionaries of anti-worker and irresponsible capitalist state governments who are known to have no care in the world for the funding of public education or the welfare of teachers in the first instance. Meanwhile as of July 1st 2020 in a report by the Punch Newspaper, the very same General Secretary of the NUT had correctly opposed school resumption on the basis of lack of evidence to show that any serious steps had been taken to make schools safe.
As far as we are concerned in the ERC, instead of relying on the unreliable words of the commissioners of education, a correct approach by the NUT would have been to set up an independent process through its branches at the 36 states and 774 local government levels to certify the preparedness of the schools. Our call for the setting up of a COVID-19 task force at the level of the local government area, state and the federal level is to achieve the same purpose by ensuring that students, health professionals and parents are mobilized to join teachers on this task which would involve visitation to all public and private schools in order to accredit them for resumption of academic activities. This kind of task force which must report directly to an assembly of teachers, students and parents will also have the powers to make recommendations for schools violating safety rules to be picketed and closed down. It is only through this kind of independent actions and mobilization by the working class, and not by relying on the unreliable words of state education commissioners and even the anti-poor federal government itself, that teachers and students can be protected.
As things stand now, a lot can still be the done by the NUT to correct this wrong approach and speedily move to ensure that students and teachers are not handed over to the slaughter slab of a capitalist government whose overall decision making on the corona virus pandemic has been dictated by profit interest rather than science. The ERC again reiterates its earlier call on the NUT to set up a COVID-19 task force democratically constituted at local government, state and federal levels by teachers, students, parents and health professionals alongside a plan of action to begin to mobilize for picket, protest and demonstrations to demand provision of the following as the basic requirements before teachers and students would agree to go back to school:
(1) Extensive fumigation of school facilities and environment
(2) Provision of more classrooms and recruitment of more teaching staff to prevent overcrowding and ensure that class size ratio of 30 students: teacher is achieved.
(3) Recruitment of more non-teaching staff and their adequate training to ensure the availability of an in-house crack team to monitor compliance with the NDDC protocols within the school premises.
(4) Special COVID-19 allowance of nothing less than N50,000 monthly to all teachers and non-teaching staff who will be exposing themselves to danger by going to school at this time.
(5) A special COVID-19 palliative for students starting with cancellation of fees for all entrance examinations like WASSCE, SSCE, NCEE, NABTEB examinations, BECE etc. Where fees have been paid, it should be returned. This is essential to ensure that students from poor working class background whose parents have either lost their jobs or who have been further impoverished since the lockdown commenced do not miss out.
(6) Provision of free facemasks and other essential PPE for all staff and students. We reject any instruction asking students to come with alcohol-based hand sanitizers to school. The responsibility to keep students and staff safe rests with the government. All schools to be regularly stocked with consumables like face mask to be distributed to staff and students at least once per week with provision for application for more in the event of damage or loss.
(7) Provision of temperature checking devices, hand sanitizers, running water and other provisions for hand washing.
(8) Provision of well-equipped and well-staffed sick bays in each schools to offer emergency medical support in the event of illness.
(9) Available COVID-19 test and test kits for all staff and students. Expansion of the COVID-19 management facilities including isolation centres to prepare for unforeseen occurrence including possible spike in cases.
(10) Provision of school buses at no extra cost and with socially-distanced seating arrangement to convey pupils and staff to and from school.
(11) Provision of perimeter fencing for all schools.
(12) Improvement in funding of public education up to at least 26% percent of the budget and a crash programme to overhaul all schools.
(13) Reversal of fee hike and an end to education commercialization. Free, functional and democratically-managed public education at all levels.
Hassan Taiwo Soweto