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School re-opening: FG wants students to observe social distancing, but shortage of teachers and classrooms makes it a hard option

MUDASHIRU Taiwo and Kehinde, senior secondary school two (SS2) students of the Federal Government Boys College (FGBC), Apo in the Federal Capital Territory are worried about the government’s plan to divide the class into morning and afternoon sessions as a way of implementing social distancing protocol.

The twin brothers are perturbed they would miss having their friends in the same classroom if the government decides to segment classrooms ahead reopening of schools.

“Learning will not be fun any longer,” Kehinde said.

The minister of state for education, Emeka Nwajiuba, said the government is working on a model to ensure physical distancing and sanitation when students resume schools. And the Presidential Task Force, PTF has announced that it will soon release guidelines ahead of school re-opening to mitigate the risk of contracting COVID-19.

But it is unlikely both the minister and the PTF looked closely at the data about school infrastructure and teacher-to-student ratio before they made such pronouncement.

Maintaining social distancing protocol requires some essential school infrastructures to be in place. The Digest of 2018 national personnel audit reports published by the Universal Basic Education Commission in December 2019 puts the number of public and Private ECCDE/pre-primary, primary, and junior secondary schools at 144,467.

This report gives a comprehensive detail about the basic education sub-sector of the Nigerian education sector. Basic education sub-sector consists of pre-primary, primary, and junior secondary school classes.

According to the 2018 Basic Education Data and Indicator Profile: UBE Facts and Figures in Nigeria, the average national learners/qualified teachers ratio in primary schools in public and private schools is 49. In other words, about 49 students sit in one classroom.

This figure varies across geo-political zones; South West- 40, South-South- 45, South East- 52, North West- 82, North East- 49, and the North Central- 27.

Ahmed, a public school teacher, said his class has up to 60 students, and even if they are divided into two,  the social distancing of 2 meters can still not be achieved.

According to UBEC, for the over 40 million students that are currently enrolled in Nigerian public and private primary and junior secondary schools, there are only 1.1 million classrooms to accommodate them. Of the 1.1 million classes, 792,746 are in good condition for learning, representing 71 percent while 315,579, representing 28 percent are in bad condition and inhabitable for learning.

 Teachers worry about stress the new guidelines will bring

Implementing guidelines such as observing morning/afternoon shifts needs additional teaching hours, and this may require teachers to work overtime, or the government to recruit more teachers.

“The effects of implementing this guideline is going to weigh primarily on teachers. As a teacher in a private school, this will definitely affect me because it is going to lead to stress considering that, I would be needed to work when I am supposed to be resting,” Emmanuel Adegboyega, a primary school teacher in an Abuja private school said.

Explaining how the new guideline will put more burden on primary school teachers, Adegboyega said he will have to teach pupils the entire subject twice a day, unlike the teachers in secondary school. 

Janet, another teacher reiterated the point about the stress that the new guideline will foist on primary school teachers.

“As a teacher, the passion and energy I will put in for the morning classes can never be the same with the afternoon classes, because definitely I will be tired or stressed out so my efficiency might be reduced,” she said

Precious Clerkson, another school teacher suggested that the sessions can be divided by year of class.

“The only way I feel this can be done in schools without a change in salary and stress on the teachers is that the session should be divided by class. For instance, pupils in kindergarten to primary one can have their sessions in the morning, while primary two to six in the afternoon.

“For students in private secondary schools, junior classes can have their classes in the morning, while senior classes in the afternoon.  By these all teachers will not be present in the morning and afternoon,” Clerkson said.

A private school coordinator who pleaded anonymity told The ICIR what her school will do will depend on the government’s final decision. 

“If the government leaves it to us, looking at the peculiarities of our school, we can say those in primary one to three come in the morning and those in grades four to six in the afternoon. This will also reduce teachers having to teach two sets of classes in a day,” she said.

She added that the proposed guideline will affect the standard of teaching. While the teachers struggle to cover the scheme of work during the normal school hour, this new guideline would pose another difficulty for them to cover a substantial part of the scheme, she said.

Students in JSS3 and SS3 will resume first, says Ministry of Education

In a phone chat with Ben Gong, Director of Press at the federal ministry of Education, Gong told The ICIR that students in junior secondary school three and senior secondary school three will resume school first after which other classes can resume.

“You know JSS 3 and SS 3 students were about writing their exams before the lockdown. If the government finally considers segmenting classes into morning and afternoon sessions, they will be asked to resume first…you know two or three weeks of revision before they write their exams,” Gong explained.

He also said all the preventive measures and all health protocols as laid by the PTF would be enforced when schools re-open.

“Students will be asked to compulsorily come to school with their facemask, washing of hands will also be enforced…just the way it was during Ebola, you know.”

When asked about the un-accessed matching grants at the UBEC, Gong said they will always encourage state governments to access the UBEC intervention.

“UBEC intervention fund is for the states. The state governments are the ones that access the fund, but you know with the dwindling income for states due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that may be difficult now. We will always encourage them,” he told The ICIR.

Top 15 states with un-accessed matching grant

Matching grants data from UBEC shows that as of July 2019, the 36 states and the FCT are yet to access about N51.6 billion matching grant from UBEC.

This grant constitutes 50 percent of the gross revenue realised by UBEC in a preceding year meant to be disbursed to states in accordance with a sharing formula approved by the Federal Executive Council. State governments are expected to provide an equal amount of money as counterpart funds to be able to access the funds.

Despite this, Nigeria is faced with pathetic learning facilities across all states. For instance, N18.14 billion was un-accessed by 18 states in 2018. These states include Abia, Adamawa, Akwa Ibom, Anambra, Bauchi, Bayelsa, Benue, and Edo.

Other states include Ekiti, Enugu, Jigawa, Kwara, Nasarawa, Niger, Ogun, Osun, Oyo, Plateau, and Zamfara.

In 2019, no state including the FCT accessed the grant of about N22.72 billion. Each state and the FCT were to access the sum of N614 million.

Considering the wide gaps between the numbers of classrooms and teachers needed to the number of school children, Taiwo wonders how the government intends to enforce the social distancing protocol in school.

“In our school hostel, we are very many. And students sometimes share sleeping spaces,” he said.

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