By Adejumo KABIR
ABUBAKAR Abdulqudus appeared worried on his way to school in the early hours of Thursday, August 13. He is one of the Junior Secondary School 3 (JSS3) students writing the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE), a prerequisite examination for promotion into Senior Secondary School.
Abdulqudus’ worry was not the fear of the English Language examination set to hold at 9:00 a.m. that day, but the concern about the danger that coming to school amidst COVID-19 posed to his family. The class captain of the 136 students sitting for the promotion examination in Ansarudeen Society High School, Kishi, Oyo State, said that while the use of face mask was made compulsory for every student, social distancing was difficult to achieve in the hall.
The school also lacks basic amenities such as chairs, desks, toilets and potable water for students. PREMIUM TIMES findings revealed that buckets and sanitisers provided for the school were only used for a week after resumption. Since then, the buckets have been kept in the Home Economics laboratory due to difficulties faced by students to fetch water while the hand sanitizers have been exhausted, hence constant washing of hands is no longer practised in the school.
“The use of facemask is only made compulsory but as you can see, the hall is not big enough to accommodate the 136 students writing the examinations. From what I read from pages of newspapers, there’s no social distancing in the school”, the student said.
“We spent a week washing our hands before going to class and since then, we just come to school and go to class and there is nothing like handwashing again.”
Four months ago, the federal government ordered the closure of schools following the rise of COVID-19 pandemic, but on July 21, Governor Seyi Makinde of Oyo State asked Pry 6, JSS 3 and SSS 3 students to resume for their examination from July 30.
The state then announced August 10 for the commencement of the JSS 3 promotion examination. The federal government took the same step by asking students in the exit classes to resume on August 4.
Conditions set by the federal government include the provision of hand sanitisers, water and soap at strategic locations within premises of schools, and ensuring social distance. The guidelines for the reopening of schools also stipulated effective response if anyone exhibited symptoms associated with COVID-19 infection.
Following this development, PREMIUM TIMES visited a rural community, Kishi, in Oyo State, to report happenings as students return to school. Kishi is a rural area in the northern part of Oyo and the headquarters of Irepo Local Government Area. It shares borders with Kwara State. The town is about 250km from Ibadan, the capital of Oyo State.
Already, a United Nations (UN) and World Health Organisation (WHO) report revealed that over 800 million students worldwide lack basic handwashing facilities at schools thus increasing the risk of coronavirus contagion.
More than a third of the over 800 million children who lack these basic facilities are from sub-Saharan Africa. And from this newspaper’s findings, Kishi is one of the communities where children are most at risk.
Handwashing buckets without water
For several hours, our correspondent waited for the Principal of Ansarudeen Society High School to ask why the school defied protocols directed by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).
Other teachers available also refused to respond to PREMIUM TIMES enquiries on why authorities decided to keep the buckets in Home Economics laboratories amidst rising cases of the deadly virus.
“Only the principal will answer that”, one of the teachers said during a second visit to the school.
The situation in Ansarudeen was the same in other schools visited by our correspondent in the community.
Kishi Community Grammar School has had no form of water supply since 1976 when it was established. While the institution has toilets, getting water is an arduous task. Students were writing examinations when our reporter visited the school.
The school has a total of 905 students for the current academic session. There are 135 students writing ongoing JSS examinations while 110 students would be writing WAEC, the principal of the school, Amos Solomon, told PREMIUM TIMES.
“There is no well nor borehole but we beg owners of boreholes around to help us with water anytime we are in need. We’ve written several letters to the Oyo State Government requesting for a borehole or any means of getting water but our letters are left unattended to. So, how do we ensure that students properly wash their hands when there’s no water to do so. We have to lock the toilet to avoid being messed up by students, because there is no water,” Mr Solomon lamented.
This was also the case in Adasobo Grammar School. One of the students, Princess Isaac, told PREMIUM TIMES that they have been mandated to bring water from their homes every day for hand washing.
“Since there is no water in the school, those whose houses are closer to the school fetch water to fill the bucket and that’s how we’ve been maintaining the protocols. The only thing is that sometimes, the water finishes so early in the morning and we just have to let go till the next day.”
PREMIUM TIMES had a separate experience at Iba High School. Although the school lacks water, there is a borehole adjacent to the college which makes difficulties faced by students less demanding amidst COVID-19 crisis. But like others, the school lacks good toilets for proper sanitation.
Irregular facemasks, social distancing
The most difficult of all to achieve by students and teachers in schools visited by our correspondent is social distancing. The halls being used to write the Junior School Certificate examination are not designed to meet the standard of WHO and NCDC on social distancing. Moreover, PREMIUM TIMES observed the non-use of face masks in the community at large.
None of the teachers and students in Adasobo Grammar School was wearing a face mask when our reporter visited the school. But when our correspondent introduced himself to the Vice Principal, Simon Joseph, he swiftly addressed the students saying “where are your nose covers. Didn’t I tell you to be using it always,” even when it was evident that he was also breaching the rule.
“I say you must put your nose cover anytime you are coming to school”, he shouted at the students and ordered one of them to bring out the bucket and sanitiser so that students arriving late could fill them with water.
None of the students in the school as of the time of our visit had washed his or her hands, they all told PREMIUM TIMES.
A student, who asked not to be named, told PREMIUM TIMES that she would have preferred to stay back home to avoid being exposed to risk if the ongoing examination was not compulsory.
Mr Joseph could not disclose the number of students who registered for the examination to PREMIUM TIMES.
Unlike Adasobo school where the use of face masks was virtually non-existent, there was full compliance when this newspaper visited Iba High School. Both members of staff and students had their noses covered on Thursday morning. The major compliance not met at Iba High School is social distancing. For the vice principal, failure to comply with the social distancing rule is due to lack of facilities.
A female student, Blessing Chikunovu, who spoke with our correspondent, lamented that students writing Junior School Certificate examinations are forced to bring chairs from their respective homes to write their examination, a claim that was corroborated by the authority of the school.
“The fact that we are made to bring chairs from home is sad. There is need for improvement because even the hall meant for examination is not in good shape. COVID-19, as said by many, is real but we are not being looked after enough not to contract it. I may be conscious enough to come with sanitizer from home but what about others. The reopening of school is good but it is at the detriment of our lives,” Blessing said.
Oladipupo Dorcas, the school vice principal, noted that there are various abandoned projects not making learning conducive for students.
“We have written to the government to provide chairs but nothing has been heard. The hall can even affect student mentality. We have been trying our best as directed by the government but the major problem we have is lack of adequate facilities as there are 120 students taking the ongoing examination in the small hall.”
Before schools reopened, PREMIUM TIMES understands that some teachers were trained on how to manage COVID-19 crisis if they suspect any in their schools. But, none of the teachers was available in all schools visited by our correspondent in Kishi.
Also, while the NCDC, in its guidelines for school reopening, mandated that schools should “establish and adequately equip dispensaries and clinics as appropriate”, the schools in this community lacked infrared thermometers or functional clinics that can cater to sick students.
Learning with cows
However, while the challenge of COVID-19 exists, the major concern of parents is the lack of security in most schools visited. This newspaper observed that schools visited in Kishi are without gates and fences which give room for trespass. At different instances, our correspondent saw herds of cattle and rams within the schools’ premises and classrooms.
Adewale Kazeem, the PTA chairman of Ansarudeen High School, while speaking with our correspondent, lamented that most schools in the community are not conducive for children. He also criticised the failure of the government to listen to the plea of parents in protecting the lives of their wards.
“There are not enough classrooms in most of the schools in Kishi for conducive learning and social distancing is difficult. These schools do not have fencing and cows find their ways into classrooms and even disrupt learning”, he said. “Government is trying but there’s need to do more because we are not satisfied with the preparation said to have been put in place and your findings also revealed a lot.”
“We only trust God that they [children] will be safe because we aren’t comfortable with structures of schools. I hope they provide necessary chairs for conducive learning. Encroachment by Fulani is disastrous because sometimes, they may have encounter with them and only God knows what will trigger unfortunate actions.”
A community leader, Jimoh Aliu, told PREMIUM TIMES that “As parents, we are only praying. The government has done what they consider necessary even though we have problem with school structures which is what is obtainable in many rural communities. We do hope that things get better one day”.
Another parent, Ramatullahi Wahab, said: “School resumption is a great thing but we must understand the risk attached to it following unpreparedness.” She urged authorities to send their team to grassroots to observe the level of compliance so that schools management would be on their toes in ensuring the safety of children and teachers in their custody.
We’ve Tried Our Best – Govt
When contacted, the Chairman of Irepo Local Government Area, Hasif Adedidran-Sulieman, said the government has tried its best.
“From our level, we shared face masks around and we expect that people do the needful after sensitization. The only problem we have with our people is that they don’t believe it exists and can even get to Kishi even when we have evidence that the disease is not a joke. We held a series of meetings with schools’ heads but it is expected that some would breach.”
The council chairman also claimed that residents were ‘immune’ to COVID-19 because of the tropical nature of the environment in Africa, a narrative not backed by scientific facts.
Over 50,000 people in Nigeria have been infected with COVID-19, including over 3,000 in Oyo State. Nigeria has also recorded over 1,000 deaths from the virus.
“We have succeeded in our part. We don’t have test gadgets to test our people but we are certain that we are safe because there’s heat here and community people take dry gin often that reportedly combat COVID-19,” the council chairman said as he declined comments on the lack of infrastructure in the schools.
When confronted with our findings, the state’s commissioner for health, Basir Bello, blamed the situation on the schools.
“Nigerians have problems with compliance,” he said.
“No matter the extent of provision, it is sure that some schools most especially in the rural communities would defy protocols. That’s the problem of Nigerians on any policy made by the government.
“What you are saying is the fact but that’s not peculiar to Oyo rural communities alone. We cannot say because we don’t have some amenities, students should not go back to school. You are working now as a journalist and you don’t want students to continue their lives too?”
On his part, the education commissioner, Sunkanmi Olaleye, said the government had tried its best but will revisit many schools in rural communities to fact-check PREMIUM TIMES claims.
The Oyo government did not disclose the amount made available to schools to help them comply with COVID-19 protocols. Mr Olaleye also declined enquiries on matters relating to funding.
“We tried from our end to release necessary things needed when we asked schools to resume. We knew classes would be enough in observance of social media rules in the sense that only the terminal classes were asked to resume. Now that you have noted some lapses, our Local Inspectors of Education would be in those schools and others in various rural communities.”
When questioned about lack of potable water, toilets and decayed infrastructure, the commissioner said: “Even in your house, do you always have water. We are in this thing together. Parents can also monitor the schools of their children and provide what schools lack.”
The Chief Executive of Connected Development (CODE) and founder of #FollowTheMoney, Hamzat Lawal, expressed worry over this newspaper’s findings. He, however, called for education stakeholders to rise to the need of education in rural areas.
“Your findings about the schools in the rural community is worrisome. Government said they have budgeted and released funds to provide adequate facilities but even before now, many of our schools have no toilets and the ones with toilets do not have water which threatens the hygiene of students most especially the girls that are often forced to stay out of school during their menses.”
“COVID-19 has shown that there’s a need for us to take the education sector more seriously. For three months while schools were locked down, adequate provisions ought to have been made. We cannot disconnect all of these from corruption. Up till now, no one could tell how much they spent in reopening these schools. I’m more worried about the grassroots where potable drinking water is even a problem let alone schools.”
“Education stakeholders need to rise up to this challenge. We’ve written FOI letters to various governments to give us break down on their spending so far, but unfortunately, none has responded. All they are giving us is the incident report and without financial information, you cannot build public trust.”
A senior lecturer at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, Osun State, Kehinde Ayoola, also decried the unpreparedness of the government towards the reopening schools.
“I’m not comfortable with the reopening of schools because there is a lot not put in place. All needed is for parents to personally equip their children and pray for safety”.