I am joining this debate after much dilly-dallying, trying to find the rhythm of my conscience on this matter. As I get older in the onerous responsibility of child protection through the instrumentality of Social Empowerment Advocacy, I have come to know and accept as an undeniable reality that it is always gives priceless advantage to be quick to hear and be very slow to speak.
You see, matters of this nature are not always as simple as those who argue for or against try to make it look. The issues of resumption of primary and secondary school pupils cannot be a simple debate of for or against. The simple reason is that there is a multi-level interplay of interests regarding this matter. The truth of the matter is that every interest has a point. Every interest has an argument. None of the interest can be accused of being selfish. Most importantly every interest is speaking from divergent social status. Forget, those who have assume the poor strategy of finger points, which I consider an immature way of conducting our social affairs.
The federal government has declared Monday, September 22, 2014 as the resumption date for schools from long vacation. We all know that resumption was postponed as a result of Ebola crisis. Schools were earlier to resume on October 13, 2014 according to the directive of the Federal Government before the date was reviewed ‘as a result of a careful reassessment of the situation. Stakeholders, parents, teachers, school owners, public health experts, medical practitioners, child protection experts and other are today standing on the either side of the divide.
I think there are two sides here: one is side says do not reopen and gave plethora of reasons, one of which is that children are not as careful as adults and they may not be able to adhere to instructions on preventive measures. Those on the side of this divide have also argued that children should not be allowed to return to until the country can be said to be Ebola free. This group has further pointed accusing fingers to private school operators as the unseen hand behind the movement for the September 22, 2014 resumption. They have also argued that governments at the Federal and State levels are not ready in terms of preventive measures taken by the governments. According to a recent newspaper report, ‘analysts and some concerned stakeholders are worried over the poor state of sanitation in many public schools, with rickety water infrastructure, un-hygienic toilets and the widespread practice of open defecation that create high risks conditions for the spread of not only Ebola but other diseases like cholera and diarrhea.’
On the other side of the divide are those who argue that school must resume as directed by the Federal Government. The protagonist of that group is the Federal Government, whose most vociferous face is the Honourable Minister of Health, Professor Onyebuchi Chukwu. The professor minister has argued that those who are calling for indefinite shut down of the schools plagued by paranoia as they have no facts to substantiate their position. He has argued that the spread of Ebola virus has been successfully contained in all the states of the federation and there is no cause for alarm.
Having time to study the cases of both sides of the divide, permit me to express my intervention in three points: I think the first issue here is that the war over resumption and the blanket declaration of a resumption date by the Federal Government again exposes that nature of the so-called federalism we claim to run in Nigeria. While I agree that Ebola Virus may qualify for a national emergency and must draw the attention and directives of the Federal Government, I believe the issue of resumption should be treated on state to state basis. I believe what the Federal Government should do is to create a template of criteria, which each state should follow and allow each federating unit, known as state to take a final decision on same with due consultation with the Federal Government. It is important to note that education is under the concurrent list of legislation under our constitution. It is also known that most state primary and secondary schools are funded by the state government. I am at a loss, why the Federal Government should take a final decision, which is binding on the federating units, which primary and secondary education it does not fund. Please note that I am aware of the N1.9 Billion Naira, approved for the fighting of Ebola Virus. The truth is that we are not told how the fund is being disbursed and what percentage is allocated to the educational sector both at the state and federal levels. On a permanent level, I am aware of the policy position promoted by the Universal Basic Education Act. It is important to note that the federal government has not on the basis of the UBE Act taking over the responsibility of funding education at basic level.
The second issue is a common error, I have seen in matters of this nature in this part of the world. Children have not been involved in the debate. Adults, who think they know better, have been speaking for children as usual. They have neglected their right to participation, which says children must be allowed and encouraged to participate in matters, which concerns them through their varied ways of communication. I see that nobody has involved children in the matter, seeking your opinion. I think children’s opinion on this issue matters. Children are the ones, who are being asked to return to school, their thought must be called for as a matter of urgency and necessity. I agree that parents, teacher, public health practitioners and the general public must be engaged, but I wonder why we always find it difficult to involve children in the matter, knowing that they are the primary focus of the issue at hand. I believe it is a major fallacy on the side of the campaigners and governments when children are not given the opportunity to project their voice on this matter.
Permit me to round up this discussion with the third and last issue. One major fear I have for our society is that we have perfected the laughable art of putting the cart before the house in our social debates. Permit me to state that, I do not think the debate is whether schools should resume or not no matter how long children have stayed home. Please note that in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, where Ebola is spreading like wild fire, the debate cannot be how long children have been at home. The argument is not also that children are vulnerable. I think the meat and heat of the debate should focus on how prepared are governments at all levels to ensure that children are protected, knowing that the number one responsibility of primary and secondary caregivers in the life of the child is to protect the child. It has been established that the spread of Ebola virus is preventable with necessary measures in hygiene. Government at this state must answer this question in dual capacity. First, in their capacity as education providers, who run public schools and secondly as regulatory bodies, who regulate private schools. How prepared governments are in the foregoing capacity must be considered independently. The first issue is what are the regulatory policies the governments have formulated and handed down to the operators of public and private schools? If such regulatory policies are put in place, would they have same impact across board, particularly among the private schools sector, considering the fact private schools all over the nation are not at the same level of infrastructure development? It is a known fact that private schools in the urban and sophisticated areas do not have same infrastructural status like those in the rural and densely populated areas, particularly in a state like Lagos. It is also a known fact that some of the private schools in Lagos State are not within the radar of the ministry of education. That is the schools are unregistered and unknown to government. How then does the government regulate schools that are not in its database? If the private schools in urban and sophisticated areas are ready to receive to receive students, having put in place precautionary measures, are the ones in local and densely populated area ready? If there is no uniformity in preparedness between public schools, private schools located in the local and densely populated areas and the ones in urban and sophisticated areas, are we going to have two resumption dates?
Permit me to conclude here that the debate is yet to begin if we do not bring these issues to the table and find credible answers to them. It is also important to note that our answers must be in the best interest of the child. The truth is that even if the schools resume on Monday, September 22, 2014, it does not change the issues. May God help us.