Secondary and primary schools, public and private, were due to reopen in the third week of this month, beginning September 15, after a long holiday that began late July. But because of the sudden outbreak of the deadly Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) that same month, first in Lagos and now Port Harcourt, Rivers state, the federal government postponed the resumption date to October 12. Again, last weekend, a meeting of the Minister of Education, Mallam Ibrahim Shekarau and states’ commissioners of education in Abuja resolved that the schools would now reopen on September 22.
The Minister of Health, Prof. Onyebuchi Chukwu, explaining why the resumption date was brought forward, said in Abuja on Monday that the virus had been contained. “We’ve contained the situation,” he said confidently. “Ebola is no longer in the streets anywhere in Nigeria… At the moment, only one person is on treatment at the isolation ward in Lagos.” Even that one case, according to him, has ceased manifesting Ebola symptoms. “She longer has any symptoms and she is undergoing a series of tests preparatory her discharge this week”. Rivers’ Commissioner of Health, Dr. Sampson Parker, agreed with the health minister. “I can assure you that the disease has been covered…The number of deaths from Ebola is lower than deaths from road accidents.”
However, medical doctors, who have just returned to work after a long nationwide strike, have contradicted the minister and Dr. Parker, saying that the decision to reopen schools earlier than originally decided is rather precipitate. They would rather schools remained shut till October or even early next year to ‘make assurance double sure’ that Ebola is gone. But besides that, the doctors are angry that they were not consulted before the latest decision was taken.
Dr. Tope Ojo, Chairman, Lagos state chapter of NMA, spoke for his colleagues: “Waiting till October when, at least, the situations in Lagos and Port Harcourt would have been conclusively managed is a safety measure…These kids are not studying to get a degree, so we are sure it would not have affected the school curriculum.” NMA National Secretary General, Dr. Olawunmi Alayaki, on his part, has this to say: “We aren’t happy with this decision…Schools should be shut till the last suspected case or patient is certified free of the virus. We can shift the resumption date to next year if that is the time it will take. Government should have enough time to follow the standard procedure for containing the virus.”
The doctors have a point here. And on this they have the backing of the WHO that has said it will take 6-9 months to completely contain the virus. It is good news that Nigeria is on its way to stopping the virus from spreading beyond Lagos and Rivers states. However, we should not be lured into a sense of complacency. As the doctors have rightly observed, “Nigeria is peculiar because of her large population and we should be pragmatic and proactive. It will not augur well for the country if we have another outbreak due to carelessness.”Besides, there is nothing on the ground to suggest that the schools have taken the “right” measures to protect their students when they return. For instance, the government says they must train staff to handle emergencies should they occur. But this hasn’t been done. Most schools don’t have functional clinics. On their part, the health authorities need to issue a checklist of precautionary measures to the schools. Again, this hasn’t been done.
In our view, therefore, rushing the students back to school at a time the schools are not prepared to receive them is a sure recipe for an otherwise avoidable tragedy.We have since learnt that the government had come under intense pressure by proprietors of private schools to bring the reopening date forward from October 13. Their motive was to avert a huge financial loss from a reduced school calendar. It is a shame that the government buckled under the pressure.