Why Schools Should Not Reopen Too Soon

The term school is used here as a cover term for all institutions used for the formal transmission of knowledge and skills, particularly primary, secondary, and tertiary institutions. Much as I would want learner institutions to go back and resume their studies, I cannot dismiss my concern for the safety of the teachers, the learners, and the parents, who drop them off and pick them up.

I define safety here in terms of data and scientific information about the coronavirus infections and not in terms of politics, economics, or emotions alone. The arguments for reopening schools, even tomorrow morning, must be acknowledged.

First, no one can deny the learning losses of pupils and students arising from the disengagement from their learning for over two months. There is a high probability that they might have forgotten much of what they learned before the disengagement. Although federal and state governments as well as private proprietors have set up radio, TV, or online platforms for continued learning, poverty and poor infrastructure have deprived the majority from participation. Therefore, going back to school will provide the most advantageous forum and level playing field for all students to learn.

Second, there are also social reasons for reopening schools. Children miss their teachers, friends, and school routines. It cannot be denied that the school provides a clear support system for schoolchildren and plays a major role in their socialisation. That’s why the social network established in school, from primary to tertiary level, often lasts forever.

Third, many poor pupils in public primary schools have been missing out on good nutrition from free school lunch. For such children, extended lockdown may prolong their nutritional deprivation. It is doubtful if the federal government’s controversial provision of “dry food” to the homes of such students can substitute for prepared hot lunch served in schools.

Fourth, in the absence of day care centers, many working parents, for whom schools function as care centers, were in a fix as to where to keep their young ones as they resumed work after easing the lockdown. For now, some have been able to get by with the assistance of relatives and others, such as teachers, who are not yet back at work. However, the problem will escalate, when the lockdown is fully removed, without reopening schools.

Finally, there are pressing economic reasons to resume work and reopen schools. The damage caused to the economy and to education could cancel out the benefits of continued lockdown and school shutdown. Conversely, however, the damage caused by premature school reopening could cancel out the health safety being secured by the lockdown. Against the above backgrounds, the argument really is not whether schools should reopen. The question is when and how.

If it is agreed that the reopening of schools should be contingent on health safety, then there is no sign at the moment that we have reached the safe level of COVID-19 infections to warrant reopening schools. For one thing, the data on infection rates in different parts of the country do not support reopening schools any time soon. The Minister of State for Education, Dr. Chukwuemeka Nwajiuba, admitted on Moday, June 1, during the Presidential Task Force briefing, that the scientists still do not support the reopening of schools, but without providing the data for their conclusion.

The data suggest (1) that the country has entered the community transmission phase of the COVID-19 infections; (2) that the rate of infections is growing at an exponential rate; and (3) that the country has not even reached the peak of infections. Here’s why: At the end of February, 2020, there was only one case in a single state. By the end of March, the infections had spread to 11 states with 139 cases.

Alarmed by the growing rate of infections, the first phase of lockdown was imposed on the hotspots of Lagos, Ogun, and the Federal Capital territory. Other states soon followed with variations of the lockdown to suit local circumstances. The lockdown notwithstanding, the cases grew to 1,932, covering 34 states, by the end of April, 2020, forcing an extension of the lockdown.

However, by May 3, 2020, when the cases were at 2,388, the federal government decided to ease the lockdown, even as hundreds were dying in Kano in what were described as “mystery deaths”, but later found to be consistent with COVID-19 infections. Phase-1 of the lockdown was extended on May 20, while infections stood at 6,000. However, by May 31, just 11 days later, Nigeria had surpassed the 10,000 mark. This made Nigeria (10,162) the third most infected country in Africa, after South Africa (32,683) and Egypt (24,985).

As of the time of writing (Monday, June 1, 2020), infection cases stood at 10, 578, with 299 deaths. The above data show that nearly 10,000 cases occurred within the month of May alone, with the highest single day infections of 553 occurring on May 31, 2020. Besides, nearly half of all cases since February occurred within the last two weeks alone. These data confirm that the infection rates in Nigeria are on the rise and have yet to peak.

Clearly, the rationale for further easing of the lockdown and for allowing churches and mosques to congregate begs for explanation. True, the Presidential Task Force (PTF) provided guidelines; but the same PTF had often lamented the noncompliance of Nigerians with necessary mitigation measures. If adults have problems complying with mitigation measures, imagine what chaos will be on display in schools and universities if they were to reopen as infection rates are rising.

If, as elsewhere, passing the peak for new infections is the first hurdle for reopening schools, then it is clear that Nigeria is not yet there. Fortunately, in the middle of composing this piece, the PTF acknowledged the foregoing and has deferred the reopening of schools until further notice. Whatever the PTF means by “further notice”, it should not be earlier than September 1, 2020.

How this should be done will be addressed next week. The point should not be lost that educational institutions are sites of convergence, bringing together teachers, students, and parents from different parts of the country. This creates potent sites for community transmission, especially as infections are spiking. Even in South Korea, where infections were down, the reopening of schools led to another spike, which sent the country into yet another lockdown!

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