Putting schools on the spot with reopening guidelines

By Iyabo Lawal |   02 July 2020   |   3:02 am  

Schools cannot wait to reopen. Students are anxious to resume, but COVID-19 pandemic stares everyone in the face. After months of shutting down schools, the Federal Government is weighing reopening options that could leave many schools, practically, permanently shut. Head, Education Desk, IYABO LAWAL, writes.

Last Thursday, it was reported that the Federal Ministry of Education had worked on a document containing guidelines for the reopening of schools in Nigeria. Not a few parents would heave a sigh of relief. It is, however, imperative to consider the proposed guidelines in the context of schools and infrastructure in the country.
   
Most of Nigeria’s public schools are shambolic. From Lagos to Abuja, Calabar to Adamawa, Imo to Kano, and Rivers to Niger, not a few pupils sit on creaking chairs, use decrepit desks inside ceiling-less, and learn in overcrowded classrooms. Some public schools across Nigeria’s 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory are “molue-ish.” In a classroom of 100, 40 pupils sit, the remaining 60 stands or loiter around, looking in from outside the classroom.

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In the worst-case scenario, schoolchildren do sit on bare floors in classrooms with unhinged windows and a roofing sheet clinging to time-worn nails as they are buffeted hither-thither by the slightest breeze. Many schoolchildren learn either under scorching suns, unbearable heat or leaky roofs.
   
Their teachers too share in the brunt of dilapidated buildings or non-existent infrastructure. Forced to work in the undignified environment, teachers underperform and the education system has continued to worsen. The situation is not so different in higher institutions, particularly in overcrowded lecture rooms. Then entered coronavirus.

Given inadequate infrastructure and lack of technical know-how for virtual learning, the Federal and state governments are juggling the balls to see how schools can be reopened without the tragedy of COVID-19.  But as painted above, the situation on the ground plus the COVID-19 crisis could be a recipe for disasters.

About two years ago, Ijaiye Housing Estate Senior School, Lagos State, was reported to have a classroom filled with 160 students. “Most of our classes, especially SSI and SS2, have up to 10 arms (A-J) each, and each class has 80 students or more. And because of space challenge, some of these classes only exist on paper and not in the physical form of a classroom setting,” one of the teachers, who pleaded anonymity, had disclosed.

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“SS1 A and SS1 B are two separate classes on paper. But in reality, they are merged into one classroom as a science class with no fewer than 160 students. That is how SS1 ‘C’ and SS1 ‘D’ and some other arts and commercial classes are equally structured,” a student at the school also disclosed. 
   
But the actual number of students recommended by UNESCO for a single classroom is between 30 and 35 and any classroom that has an extra student is considered to be overcrowded and not good for learning and teaching.

As of June 2018, according to the annual public school census, 2017, Lagos State has 349 Junior and 322 Senior Secondary schools with students’ population of 337,724 and 229,980, respectively.

Giving further insight, the annual education sector performance report reveals that on average, there are 87 students in junior and 68 students in senior classrooms some 10 years ago respectively in Lagos schools.

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A breakdown of that report indicates that there were 129 junior and 82 senior students per classroom at Ojo. At Ajeromi-Ifelodun, there were 123 junior and 75 Senior students per classroom. There was a similar trend in Shomolu, which had 123 junior students and 79 senior students per classroom. Kosofe had 103 junior and 94 senior students per classroom. 

In Agege, there were 105 junior students and 73 senior students per classroom. In Alimosho, the figure was 96 junior students and 78 senior students per classroom. And Badagry had 100 junior students and 65 senior students per classroom. While in Lagos Island, there were 65 junior students and 48 senior students per classroom.

Overcrowded schools bother everybody in the country, including education policy researchers and teachers. The latter worry about meeting the needs of more students and with fewer resources. This is just as parents and students lament the deplorable classroom conditions.

Classroom size is an important factor in determining the attainment of academic excellence. As noted earlier, the recommended number of students per classroom, according to UNESCO, should be one teacher to 30 students.

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However, statistics available from the Federal Ministry of Education shows that in 2004, there were 782 teachers and 18,296,202 pupils (that is a ratio of about 1:50) in 39,221 primary schools. For public secondary schools – as of 2005 – students’ enrolment was 5,422,611 and 122,477 teachers (that is a ratio of 1:45).

How will social/physical distancing be maintained in such a situation? Apparently, such a school will likely remain under perpetual lock and key if the reported guidelines for the reopening of schools in the country by the Federal Ministry of Education are anything to go by.

Also, many so-called private schools do not fare better. In fact, they may be considered a ticking time-bomb under the circumstances because many of them are not registered by state governments. They have mushroomed out of control. The guidelines are strict and understandably so because young lives, especially, are involved.

According to a document, “Guidelines for schools and learning facilities reopening after COVID-19 pandemic closure,” both private and public schools are required to have an isolation centre and a fully-equipped clinic before they can be reopened.

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That is not all. The document also stipulates that schools should employ more teachers and build more learning structures with the classrooms designed such that there will be strict adherence to social distancing protocols. They are also expected to pay salaries on time. It is a tough call. Other miscellaneous requirements are that schools should make available water and soap.

No doubt, the government places a high premium on the lives of teachers and learners. But how many schools, private and public, will meet the stringent requirements and what will be the fate of millions of learners that will be affected?

“It is equally crucial that consultations are held and communication exchanged with parents, teachers, learners and communities to understand and address common concerns,” the document explained.

It added, “There are exceptions where the two-metre rule cannot be reasonably applied and other risk mitigation strategies may be adopted. Examples include early years, younger primary school children and those with additional needs.

“In these circumstances, risk assessments must be undertaken with the best interests of the learners, teachers, and other education personnel in mind.”

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With what the education ministry is proposing, schools will need more hands. It is hard to imagine that many private schools that are about going under and have not paid salaries of staff members will meet the requirement of having students put in various groups for learning purposes. Yet, that is a scenario the document leans on.

It explains further, “The membership of these groups should not change unless the NCDC public health guideline suggests otherwise. The safety and hygiene measures outlined in this document should, as in all cases, be followed carefully. It is imperative that safe distancing between adult staff working with such groups be maintained.”

It is daunting to imagine schools literally breaking up buildings for redesigning. For one, they are cash-strapped, and secondly, the likelihood of recouping resources spent on such a project is slim since the earning power of many parents has suffered a dip.

The document also suggests staying outdoors for learning, noting, “The use of shelter outdoors is necessary for the protection and safety of learners and teachers. In addition, safety in all weather and security measures is required for each location.”

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Not many schools have enough space for that, especially cramped-up private schools.

In an attempt to address the issue of overcrowding, the document encouraged schools to schedule various resumption and closing times for students. That sounds plausible, but it is not clear how practicable. Will school hours have to be reduced? Or will there be evening classes?

The guideline stated, “A gradual and phased reopening can then be considered while prioritising learners who are vulnerable, have reduced access to distance learning modalities, and/or are in examination classes.

“This would help assess the readiness of schools and learning facilities to reopen fully to all learners. In addition, this would serve to minimise the risk of a resurgence of coronavirus infections.”

In a nutshell, the education ministry’s guidelines stipulate that schools should have distance learning centres, temporary shelters and isolation space, disinfection and fumigation of facilities, including hostel accommodation, with particular attention given to those used as temporary isolation and treatment centres and for other purposes during the pandemic.

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The document also indicates schools should “sensitise, train and build the capacity of teachers, administrators and other education personnel to effectively use and comply with the School COVID-19 Referral System and protocols for safe distancing and hygiene in schools.”
The odds seem against both types of school systems.

According to a report by the Data Centre of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Institute for Statistics, of all the 189 countries, Nigeria is among four nations with the highest number of overcrowded classrooms in its secondary schools.

An increase in pupils’ enrolment in Nigeria’s public schools is a major concern to all stakeholders, especially when classrooms are already overcrowded. Even though the government at various levels appears to be making efforts at getting out-of-school children back into the classroom, stakeholders argue that there are no commensurate efforts to improve on infrastructure and build more schools, classrooms and recruit more teachers.   

According to experts, overcrowding occurs when the number of students enrolled in the school is more than the number of students the school is designed to accommodate at a given period. When overcrowding occurs, it may contribute to the wear and tear on schools and the intellectual capability of pupils.

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