The Federal Government through the Ministry of Education’s permanent secretary had on Wednesday the 19th of March, 2020, ordered a nationwide closure of schools, both public and private primary, secondary and tertiary institutions. This decision was made following the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic also known as COVID-19. Later, the Minister of Education Mallam Adamu Adamu had, on Wednesday the 8th of July, 2020, said: “Nigerian schools would not be reopened until the COVID-19 pandemic drastically subsides. He further said Nigerian students would not participate in Senior Secondary Certificate Examinations (SSCE) scheduled to commence on August 4 Mallam Adamu also said, Nigerian students would rather be made to lose an academic year than to be exposed to danger” (ThisDay newspaper, 8/7/2020).
As much as this decision was taken to contain the spread of Covid-19 and to prevent Nigerian students from being exposed to the virus, it also exposes the accumulated failure of successive capitalist governments to adequately fund the Nigeria’s public education system. Indeed at this moment of crisis the Federal Government has just cut its education budget by 54.3%, N111.7 billion to N51.1 billion. It is this failure that has culminated in the poor state of our public schools where classrooms are over-crowded without adequate teaching and non-teaching infrastructures including toilets and running water let alone facilities to support online teaching.
Besides, the online learning policy cannot successfully fully replace physical learning in schools during this period of pandemic considering the reality of the Nigerian economy. Many students and their poor working class parents lack access to constant electricity supply, working electronic devices and or reliable mobile network data needed for online learning, and if these things are available often they are simply too costly for the majority of Nigerians. For children of the rich and privileged, online teaching makes sure they do not feel the pinch the same way as poor students from working class background who have idled away at home for over 4 months now. This pitiable situation calls for concerted effort from all stakeholders in the education system to ensure ‘No child is left behind’’ in the developmental process of providing quality education in this period of pandemic.
For us in the Education Rights Campaign (ERC),
we do not agree with the Minister of Education that students have to lose a year or that schools should be shut indefinitely because of the pandemic. Obviously where the infection rates are still rising, it is correct to be cautious with reopening schools. Already, a layer of students, parents, students unions and NANS have opposed the decision to suspend school reopening. At the same time, teachers are worried about their own health and safety if school should reopen even if partially at this time when infection is rising. Amidst all of these is the do-nothing approach of the government. Government has practically done nothing over the past four months of lockdown and even now to seriously improve the conditions of schools to make them safe. By this approach, government is only making sure that students pay for this pandemic by missing out on examinations and life plans. This explains the fear and opposition of a layer of students, parents, students unions and NANS to the decision to suspend school reopening. At the same time, teachers are worried about their own health and safety if school should reopen even if partially at this time when infection is rising. They know from experience that the corrupt capitalist elite cannot be trusted provide any real protection for them at work. This explains the support of the NUT for continuous school closure.
The only way to address the legitimate fears of workers and students and by so doing unite them is to demand that government at all levels must begin immediately to put in place in schools measures that ensure physical distancing such as building of more classrooms and employment of more teachers together with sanitation facilities and running water. All these can only be done if emergency action is taken to mobilize the use of the country’s resources in the interests of the majority, not the ruling elite and capitalists. For example, empty premises can be taken over in order to provide emergency accommodation for education, with compensation only paid on the basis of genuine need and recorded publicly. The expansion of the educational infrastructure will also enable the absorption of about 10 million out of school children.
These measures which must also include provision of face masks and hand sanitizers to students and staff must be certified by a committee of teachers, parents and health professionals before schools are re-opened. This means no school is opened until the workers, parents and students united together in a safety committee gives a go ahead. The responsibilities of the committee which should also include representatives of relevant government agencies and act as a democratically-run safety taskforce is to go through all schools (both public and private) and monitor safety provisions and certify them COVID-19 safety compliant before and after they are opened.
The taskforce will also have the powers to recommend to an assembly of workers, students and parents the closure of any school found to have contravened safety rules. This approach will place the workers unions in a more vintage position to negotiate and fight for improved conditions and pay, including a special hazard allowance, adequate PPE and life insurance for all members. Therefore, we of the ERC call on education workers unions (NUT, ASUP, ASUP, NASU, etc), NANS and parents associations to come together with a view of developing of a Covid-19 Education Charter which should include measures and demands we articulate above. This Charter which should be used to engage government at all levels is necessary in order to ensure that schools are safe before and after they are reopened and there are also adequate facilities for quality education.
The COVID-19 Education Charter must also include demands for provision of well-equipped and well-staffed health facilities in schools to address small and emergency health problems. In addition, we equally think the provision of school buses with socially-distanced seating arrangement to convey pupils and staff to and from schools will be a step in the right direction.
As a part of this charter, a demand for an improvement in the pay and working conditions of teaching and non-teaching staff including provision of PPE, implementation of collective bargaining agreements with all unions and meeting of demands of unions like the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) which has been on strike for months now, will motivate the education workers to remain committed in the face of the pandemic.
The ERC believes that it is only through these kinds of independent action of workers, students and parents and our readiness to rapidly take the path of struggle that the best interest of students and education workers can be protected in this period of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Yusuf Nurudeen Alowonle (Omomewa)
Lagos State Coordinator
Education Rights Campaign (ERC)