With the gradual easing of lockdown in Nigeria which was occasioned by the coronavirus pandemic, the prospect of schools reopening soon seems high.

Ordinarily, this prospect should come with some level of relief and excitement for stakeholders, especially parents and schools owners, who have borne much of the brunt of the long compulsory holiday. But this is hardly the case as there are deep-seated concerns over the safety of pupils and students, considering the fact that the war against COVID-19 is far from being over.

Disruption of Exams, School Calendar

Revisions ahead of the second term examination were on when the lockdown unexpectedly took effect. In Delta State, for instance, it began precisely on April 1, 2020. Whereas a few private schools hurriedly wrote their examinations, a chunk of them (private) and the public schools counterparts could not conduct theirs before proceeding on forced holidays.

With second term holiday being one of the shortest (about two to three weeks at the most), schools ought to have resumed since early May.

But that was not to be, no thanks to COVID-19 pandemic that is still raging. “Apart from our inability to conduct second term examination before the lockdown, we are already encroaching into the third term. Unless schools reopen now and fast track the third term activities, it is unpredictable what is going to happen,” a school proprietor, Sunday Osuhon, lamented.

With barely four months away from another academic session and, by extension, registration for another external examination, nobody is sure of the fate of students in this third term or when the postponed examinations will be conducted. “The whole thing is uncertain and eerie,” Osuhon remarked.

Worse still, is the fact that all external examinations, including those for the school cettificate the West African Examinations Council (WAEC), National Examinations Council (NECO) and the Basic Examination Certificate (BECE) for junior secondary school students, slated for this year have all been affected. “We were about starting WAEC practical when the lockdown commenced,” a proprietress, Patience Okwuone, recalled.

Burdens of A Protracted Holiday

Even summer holiday, the longest in the school calendar, cannot be compared with the COVID-19-induced lockdown. Whereas an average summer holiday lasts for one month, the subsisting holiday has lasted for two months and still counting.

“It is really frustrating and very demanding to have these children at home for that long. The saddest aspect of it all is that nobody can even travel to anywhere because of the interstate lockdown. Imagine having the children in one spot for that long,” a parent, Favour Imade, complained to our correspondent.

For Frank Nmorsi, a civil servant and father of three, the long holiday has taken a toll on people’s finances “because of the extra expenditure, especially on feeding this period.” According to him, “the holiday has been characterized by playing. And playing goes with eating because the more energy you dissipate playing, the more you would want to replenish. Again, don’t forget that the cost of commodities skyrocketed this period. So, it has been spending galore even when the economy is shrinking,” he observed.

Coping with her five active boys is, understandably, stressful for Ifeoma Ebuledom. “I have five boys who are very active and playful, coupled with the fact that my husband is not around. With no lesson to attend or anywhere to travel to, I have been managing the situation alone in these past months. It is an understatement for me to say I’m full and can’t wait to see schools reopen,” she said.

Online Platforms To The Rescue

Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. To academically engage their students this period, most schools creatively devised digital channels to reach the students. Some of these platforms include Zoom App, Google Classroom, SeeSaw, Prodigy and Khan Academy, among others

Aside holding periodic scheduled classes on these novel platforms, they became veritable channels to engage the students as assignments are sometimes given and submitted via these online media.

However, this digital approach to learning and potential antidote for boredom has its limitations as they are most effective in the urban areas. “The online platforms are very good and they have been very effective in engaging students this period. But don’t forget that many of use in the rural areas are not ICT savvy. Again, most parents don’t have access to internet facilities. So, you can see that that approach can’t work in some areas,” an Agbor-based proprietor, Sunday Osuhon, pointed out to our correspondent.

Prospect of Resumption

In his views, Phredrick Okoka, proprietor of God’s Heritage Academy, Asaba, the prospect of a possible resumption is indeed, of mixed feelings. “Mixed feelings because our children have been at home for a very long time now and it will really be nice if they can resume academic activities again. But with the scary figures that NCDC(Nigeria Centre for Disease Control) keeps reeling out on a daily basis, one cannot but wonder how safe our kids would be if schools are reopened now,” he noted.

Another proprietor and Delta State Chairman, National Association of Proprietor of Private Schools (NAPPS), Monday Ifoghere, concurred that “any prospect of resuming now comes with a mixed feeling.” According to the educationist, “resuming now is supposed to bring some relief, considering what people have passed through this period but it also raises serious concern about the safety of our children.”

The proprietress, Covenant International School, Asaba, Catherine Onitiri, expressed excitement over the prospect of early resumption but also raised concerns over “parent’s capacity to cope.”

Another Asaba-based proprietress, Patience Okwuone, who owns and runs Magnificent Bethel International School, Achalla Ibusa, told our correspondent that it had not been easy for both school owners “who have not been able to pay salaries because most students have not paid school fees before the lockdown” and students many of whom “are now hawking and doing other menial jobs following the disruption of their academic activities.” Given the disruption and gap already created in the school calendar, she held that “the earlier schools reopen, the better.”

Similarly, Sunday Osuhon, proprietor of Frontline Group of Schools, Agbor and Vice Chairman, Ika South Chapter of NAPPS, told our correspondent that “it has been very challenging for school owners. Many of our students were yet to pay fees before the lockdown took effect. Yet, we have to pay our staff so they can cope in this trying period because they are humans and have families and dependents. At this point, any news of resumption is heartwarming.”

A Business Studies teacher at Ugbuwangue Basic Secondary School, Warri South Council Area, Gladys Ewuola, said she was excited at the prospect because “we are dealing with human beings, the future leaders of tomorrow. If you allow them, especially those in public schools, to stay at home for too long, whenever you resume it will be like starting afresh, irrespective of how much of the curriculum you had covered. Too much play is counter-productive for any child.”

Gladys Nwadiolu, a Warri-based businesswoman and parent told our correspondent that “resumption now is a welcomed development. If not for some teachers who just started extra mural lessons in our area in Jeddo, I was lost as to how to cope with my four children.”

on their part, some students said they were in a hurry to resume. Oghenemaro Siakpere, a senior student of Lumen Christi College, Uromi, Edo State, said “I can’t wait to go back to school. The holiday is becoming prolonged and boring. I miss my friends and will like to rejoin them.”

For Marvelous Melekwe, a junior secondary student of Isioma Onyeobi College, Asaba, “it bothers me that we don’t even know when we are now going to write our junior WAEC exam. If not for this lockdown, we would have been thinking of finishing the exam.” Resumption, according to the 13-year-old, would be “highly welcomed.”

Expediency of Safety Measures

All the respondents, who spoke with our correspondent, agreed that some precautionary measures must be put in place and COVID-19 protocols strictly observed in schools to contain the spread of the pandemic.

“I have directed that all our members disinfect or fumigate their classrooms before resumption. They are to as well provide sanitisers, washing hand bowls, and thermometer and maintain high sanitary conditions,” Monday Ifoghere disclosed.

The Delta Sate NAPPS Chairman appealed to the state government to extend fumigation exercise to private schools; supply facemasks and relax levies for now to “enable us recover from the impact of the pandemic.”

Other Prescriptions

Besides the provision of sanitisers, infrared thermometers, washing hands bowls and facemasks, stakeholders and respondents made other useful prescriptions.

In the views of Patience Okwuone, “social distancing is very important. I have personally ordered for more seats in my school. Every pupil will now sit alone, no more pairing of kids. So, I will enjoin school owners to look into that: provision of more seats to avoid pairing pupils upon resumption.”

Catherine Onitiri suggested that school assembly should be jettisoned for now and parents discouraged from accessing classrooms. “School buses should be disallowed until the COVID-19 curve flattens,” she said.

The wife of the Senior Pastor and Founder, Royal Priesthood Divine Assembly, Sam Onitiri, also recommended that “not more than 15 pupils” should be allowed in a class and enjoined the state government to “set up a COVID-19 task force to monitor schools’ compliance.” Still, she advised that the first lesson upon resumption should be on “COVID-19 and how to stay safe.”

For Phredrick Okoka, “constant mobbing of the floor and ultra-hygienic conditions” would go a long to “ensure safety of our kids.”

Being a teacher in a public school, Gladys Ewuola, said this is not the time to crowd classrooms with students. “One of the characteristics of public schools is high population. It won’t be safe to have too many students in a class now. So, running morning and afternoon sessions will be ideal to check the crowd,” she proposed.

NAPPS Sends SOS

In a position paper signed by the National President, Yomi Otubela, and sighted by our correspondent, NAPPS, among other things, requested that government, at the federal and state levels, should assist its members in the following ways: Provision of educational grants “to enable school owners meet up with monthly grants; non-interest loan to keep private schools afloat pending when parents can pay schools fees because of the impact of COVID-19 on their finances; suspension of interest on existing loans; suspension of taxes, dues and levies; takeover of salaries of private schools’ workers for the period of the lockdown and non-conversion of public schools to markets, isolation centres, among others.

Remarkably, too, the body recommended phased resumption beginning with the terminal classes – primary six, JSS3 and SS3 – to enable them “adequately prepare for their external examinations.”

Delta State Government’s Position

When our correspondent contacted the Delta State Commissioner for Basic and Secondary Education, Chief Patrick Ukah, in telephone for clarifications on resumption of schools in the state, his response was that “all issues bordering on schools’ resumption will be addressed by the Governor after due consultations.”

When pressed on how soon the governor would be making public pronouncements on the subject, he said “there is no way I can determine that.”

Federal Government’s Volte Face

Before now, feelers from Abuja indicated that the Federal Government was likely to adopt the two sessions – morning and afternoon – approach and open schools on June 1. But, in the course of the week, the Minister of State for Education, Chukwuemeka Nwajiuba, reportedly said the Federal Government was back-stepping on the issue of resumption.

With the recent volte face of the Federal Government on the subject, it is apparent that the coast may not be clear yet for schools to reopen. When exactly schools will resume is now a matter of conjecture.

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