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The realities of COVID-19 and the havoc it wreaks defy conventions and threaten the future of tomorrow’s leaders. With the West African Examination Council (WAEC) slating its examination between August 5 and September, the Nigerian government says final-year students in unity colleges will not sit for the examinations. Any way out? Head, Education Desk, IYABO LAWAL, examines the situation.

On March 19, the minister of education, Adamu Adamu ordered that the nation’s 104 unity schools should be shut down by March 26 as a proactive step aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19. Giving the order, Adamu had said all principals of the schools should “fast-track” the then ongoing second term examinations and “close shop” until further notice.

A few months after, the Federal Government was reported to have released guidelines for the reopening of schools across the country, leading many to conclude that students would be back in school soon. In fact, the government had suggested that schools could reopen in August, as Lagos State took the lead in announcing that senior secondary school 3 and technical schools 3 should reopen on August 3.

However, a couple of days ago, while many Nigerians, students and WAEC were looking forward to starting the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE), the minister made a volte-face. He was slammed for taking a U-turn on the Federal Government’s decision to reopen schools so that final-year students could sit the exam.

A resolute Adamu said he would take none of that. Resolute, the minister explained: “Schools under the supervision of the Federal Ministry of Education will not reopen on August 4 or any time soon.”

The Federal Government-owned schools will not reopen any time soon? You heard the minister right. But why is the minister driven to that edge?

He explained: “Our schools will only open when we believe it is safe for our children and that is when the situation is right, not when the number of COVID-19 infection is going up in the nation.

“So, I just want to make that clear.”

For emphasis, Adamu said the government would not reopen schools now for examinations or any other reason unless it is safe for students, WAEC inclusive, because the council could not decide for the government what to do.
The education minister was reportedly miffed that WAEC did not carry the ministry along. But there is a more important reason, according to Adamu.

The minister said a meeting of stakeholders was called to review the situation and what needed to be done to reopen schools, but while the meeting was ongoing, WAEC announced plans to start exams.

“So, let’s see who they are going to start with,” he had revealed.

“I feel responsible for the whole children in Nigeria, not just those in Federal Government-controlled schools. Please, let’s save our children from this.”

Demonstrating the dire consequence if things go wrong in the name of sitting an examination, Adamu pointed out that just one infected child could infect everyone in the class.

“If one child in the hostel is infected, the next morning, everybody will be infected. So, this is not the right time to open schools.”

As genuine and humane as the minster’s reasons may be, he has become the whipping boy for those against his decision not to allow final-year senior secondary school students to sit for WASSCE.

Amongst the raving crowd are the nation’s federal lawmakers. According to them, the reversal showed that “our policy makers” may just be adopting a laid-back approach to the need to confront the novel coronavirus rather than taking proactive and creative steps to manage and contain it.

The House Committee on Education, therefore, disagreed with the minister, urging him to reconsider his decision to save the country’s floundering educational system from further collapse. The lawmakers argued that the government should insist that the examination be based “exclusively” on the already covered syllabus of schools.

Chairman of the House Committee, Prof. Julius Ihonvbere, had said: “The minister did not also inform the public if the decision was the outcome of a meeting with all the state governments that are in charge of all but the unity schools that are owned by the Federal Government.

“This sudden policy reversal is not good for the country. It is bound to create further confusion in the education sector, create disappointment and suspicion among parents, frustrate the students and show to our development partners and Nigerians that the distortions and disarticulations in the sector are only getting worse.”

They appealed to the education ministry not to chicken out its responsibilities, but take charge, provide policy direction, engage the states and other stakeholders. In addition, they called on WAEC to quadruple its invigilators and use all classrooms and event centres to conduct the examination and comply with the COVID-19 protocols.

The lawmakers further suggested a way out of this logjam: that the Ministry of Science and Technology, as well as the Ministries of Environment and Health, should fumigate all classrooms, provide hand-washing buckets with soap, water and face masks to all students, and the cancellation of reopening of hostels for boarding to facilitate so-called revision classes.

They added, “We are parents just like him. No parent would want to delay, distort, or terminate the progress of his child. We are convinced that if our policy of no boarding house, the reconceptualising scope of exams, use of all classrooms and halls in the schools, quadrupling the number of invigilators, provision of face masks, sanitisers and hand-washing facilities are followed, the WASSCE can be conducted with ease and with no repercussions.”

The die is cast
However, WAEC’s Head of Nigeria Office (HNO), Patrick Areghan, said since the government has the right and power to take a position, the council cannot confront it.

The Head of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Emergencies Programme, Dr Mike Ryan, appeared to toe the line of Adamu when he said in the current situation; it is unlikely we can eradicate the virus.

Then, he noted: “The best way to reopen schools is to do so once countries succeed in combating the spread of the disease.”

But COVID-19 cases in Nigeria is spiralling by the day. However, private school teachers would have none of that. They maintain that the standard safety protocols have been put in place to prevent the spread of the virus with the school premises.

The President, National Association of Proprietors of Private Schools (NAPPS), Chief Yomi Otubela, said the group has prepared its members for resumption in line with the protocols set by the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).

Already, Otubela said member schools had made provisions for handwashing, infrared thermometres, sickbays, hand sanitisers and facemasks to workers before the reversal. He added that relevant workers had been trained on how to manage the children to the spread of the pandemic, seating arrangement adjusted to allow for two-metre distance between the children and schools decontaminated.

In the same vein, the National Parents Teachers Association of Nigeria (NAPTAN) said the group is ready to equip the students with face masks, provide water, soap and sanitisers.

In a World Bank article penned by Julia Liberman, Victoria Levin, Diego Luna-Bazaldu, and Michelle Harnisch and entitled, ‘High-stakes school exams during COVID-19 (Coronavirus): What is the best approach?’ three possible scenarios were recommended for countries battling COVID-19 on the one hand, and tinkering with the idea of reopening schools for the purpose of students sitting exams.

They asserted that bodies such as examination councils, boards, and ministries of education would need to address several key questions before determining how to proceed, including if exams are cancelled or postponed beyond the scheduled date for high-stakes decisions; on what basis decisions would be made for allocating scarce resources, and how transparency and fairness can be preserved.

They said: “If exams move to an online format, how can fair access be ensured for all students? What provisions will guarantee that students in remote or rural areas, those with disabilities, and those with no (or low-quality) access to the internet or to computers or tablets will be able to take the exam? How will the examinations team ensure that test security is maintained, and what mechanisms will prevent test manipulation or item leakage?

“Finally, how can students from different socio-economic backgrounds prepare for the new format/delivery of exams in an equitable and fair way, given the disruption of classroom learning?”

They noted further: “If exams are replaced with teacher (or ‘expert’)-provided grades, what resources need to be delivered to teachers to ensure accurate and fair assessment and effective communication of what students know and can do, particularly in the context of distance learning?”

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