Before The Reopening Of Schools

By Tinuoye Adekunle Theophilius

The predominance of poorly conceptualized, omnicidal and rudderless policies and programmes has been one of the major hindrances to Nigeria’s socio-economic and political growth. Hiding behind the veneer of democracy, wallowing in the euphoria of ephemeral power, backed by an accoutrement of hirelings and buoyed by religious traders, the Nigerian ruling class has been consistently churning arcane policies, maintaining positions, perpetuating systems and creating power structures that are totally at variance with the welfare, wellbeing, wellness and progress of Nigerians

I have been following the general debates and narratives about the reopening of schools and the rescheduling of WAEC exams as a result of widespread safety concerns over the spiking nationwide COVID 19 infection rates. This pandemic has shown that our public office holders are neither more in tune with our needs, more knowledgeable about our problems, nor more aware of what is really in our best interests. Clearly it seems our leaders and policy makers don’t have proclivities for extensive reading and analysis. This may be responsible for the quality of policy making and public pronouncements in Nigeria which is neither evidence based nor the outcome of broad critical thinking. Research, analysis, consultation and discussions are necessary ingredients that provide factual support and basis for formulating sustainable policies and making durable decisions that can advance individual and national wellness. Public policy is usually the outcome of the value placed on the lives of citizens and that is why the Nigerian Constitution declared that government should guarantee the welfare, security, health and safety of Nigerians. Altruistic and perceptible public officials formulate and implement policies that will positively affect the lives of people. But when this is compromised, the result is a plethora of policies that don’t address the welfare of people, worsen their suffering and herein lay the Nigerian debacle.

In a move that defies reality and pummels logic, the Governor of Osun state whose Deputy chief of staff recently died of coronavirus and the Chief of staff just narrowly recovered was gleefully talking about reopening schools regardless of the rampaging effects of the Covid 19 pandemic. I have no issues with the reopening of schools, in fact everyone from parents, children to the greedy and slavish primary, secondary and tertiary school proprietors all over the nation want schools to reopen, but what are the commensurate safeguards and tangible plans that embed safety that are already in place in these schools that Mr Oyetola’s and other state governments are clamoring to reopen ?, Can he say he isn’t attentive to the spiraling nationwide Covid 19 infection rates?, Isn’t he conscious of the increasing infection of frontline health workers in Nigeria ?. Does he not know that although some studies said the coronavirus poses relatively low risk to children, but the propensity for spreading the virus to vulnerable family members is very high?. Has he read the recent Center for Disease Control guideline stating that the more people a student or teacher interacts with and the longer the interaction, the higher the risk of COVID 19 spread?. At least he should be sentient to the extremely high potentials of schools becoming the major vector for spreading the pandemic in a country that the health system is virtually in comatose?. Has the Osun state government even carried out independent assessments about their preparedness for and responses to the pandemic with respect to the reopening of schools?. Have they put in place contingency measures to address any negative fallouts?. This is a state government that cannot even regularly pay the salaries of its teachers and health workers and is struggling to deal with severe infrastructural deficits in all facets of its health and educational sectors

Again, have these state governments carried along other relevant stakeholders such as NUT, ANCOPSS, State COVID Taskforce, ASUS, NMA, MHWUN, NANNM, ARD, NLC, TUC, PTAs etc in their plans to reopen schools?, did they participate in the processes leading to the decision to reopen the schools?, where their inputs sought?, are they aware of the measures put in place by their respective state governments for the reopening?, are they comfortable with the safeguards?. Most importantly have these stakeholders individually or collectively conducted any form of survey or study on the implications of the reopening on their members or wards?, Are the unions most especially the NUT, ASUS, MHWUN, NANNM, NUHAPs etc aware that Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, recently criticized the United States government for recklessly pushing to reopen schools without a clear safety plan something akin to what the Osun state government and others are planning to do?. These are some of the critical issues that stakeholders should have strategically and holistically examined and mapped out plans to ameliorate to the best of their abilities for the collective safety of teachers, staff, pupils and the entire populace instead of rushing to reopen schools without any concrete arrangement.

The pandemic is far from over, it is accelerating and it is no hoax like some of these religious merchants are propagating and reopening schools without adequate measures will just give the virus the leeway to further decimate Nigeria beyond comprehension. The PTF on COVID- 19 and health officials nationwide are urging individuals to abide by announced safety measures, yet despite the evidence on the ground majorities of Nigerians are treating this with unbelievable levity. Preventing death and moderating the spread of the virus are pre-eminent imperatives which makes it mandatory for governments to continuously safeguard the health of Nigerians. Serious minded public officials have already started raising their bar. For instance, the UK Government has made wearing a face covering in shops and supermarkets in England mandatory from 24 July and have stipulated fines of up to £100 for people who fail to comply with the new rules, The Kwara state government has said it is an offense not to use face mask in public places from 31st July

Teachers and students are at great risk due to overcrowded, dilapidated and poorly ventilated classrooms as well as their poor wages, low access to good health care, low standards of living etc. So Osun and other state goverments seeking reopening of schools should jettison politics and petty showmanship and step up by implementing measures such as the mandatory wearing of masks, enforcing social distancing/gathering for pupils and bolstering safety protections for teachers. These state governments should have special measures to protect the parents and siblings of pupils and the children and other wards of teachers. The schools require emergency health workers, care and systems, so the need to protect all workers in that supply chain and guarantee their occupational health, economic, and labor rights is very essential. The schools would also require general fumigation and constant cleaning of high-touch spots: door handles, restroom facilities, classroom desks, library tables etc. The implementation of these measures would serve to give parents the needed confidence to allow their children to attend schools and also give teachers the assurance to teach safely

The coronavirus crisis has wreaked havoc on the Nigerian economy and ruined several sectors and organizations leaving millions of Nigerians economically emasculated, psychologically drained, physiologically battered and financially enervated. The Nigerian government needs to thread the morality needle by prioritizing the needs of people over the interests of corporate, financial, religious and political elites by developing strong and universal health care systems and providing medical, housing, childcare, nutrition and other social needs such as economic stimulus palliatives for majorities of Nigerians. As for Nigerians who are laboriously trying to survive under very onerous conditions in a very unequal society, i want to leave us with the words of the recently deceased human rights activist, civil rights icon and indefatigable champion for justice, John Lewis (1940-2020) we cannot give up now, we cannot give in, we must keep the faith and keep our eyes on the prize. Do not get lost in a sea of despair, be hopeful and be optimistic

Tinuoye Adekunle Theophilius is Manpower personnel at Michael Imoudu National Institute for Labour Studies, Ilorin, Nigeria, and also an external faculty associate at the Global Labour Research Centre, York University, Ontario, Canada.