Over the past six months, the coronavirus-induced school closures have limited access to learning for students worldwide, resulting in learning losses that could last a lifetime. In Nigeria, where learning levels were already low, the school closures threaten to completely derail the efforts toward achieving sustainable development goal four (inclusive and equitable quality education for all). With the gradual decline in the incidence of COVID-19 in Nigeria, the government has started implementing a phased reopening of the economy, including reopening schools. In August, many students in transitional grades (Primary 6, JSS3, and SS3) resumed classes to complete their specific grades and transitional exams.
On September 3, the government announced its approval of a phased reopening of schools for all grades, and schools across the country are beginning to grapple with how to reopen safely. As of September 21, many states, including Lagos, the epi-center of the pandemic, will begin another phase of reopening. In light of the threat of a second wave of the virus and the acute learning losses resulting from the school closures, two factors are key: first, reopening schools in adherence to adequate health and safety guidelines, and second, recovering learning losses and improving upon the pre-pandemic learning levels that plagued Nigeria’s educational system.
When deciding on the best approach and timing to reopen schools across the country, the Nigerian government faces a tradeoff. On one hand, students returning to schools and childcare settings in greater numbers will allow more families to return to work. This might be especially relevant for communities where lower-income parents cannot afford to forgo work outside the home. However, return to school carries the public health risk of a resurgence of COVID-19 infection among students, staff, and communities. The recommendations below are meant to augment the guidelines released by the federal government to ensure schools reopen safely.
A Phased Approach
An initial selective reopening of schools, followed by a gradual increase in numbers, will make it easier to keep student groups small and dispersed. Priority for reopening could include factors such as:
- Specific educational groups such as vulnerable and low-income students who are less likely to be equipped to benefit from remote learning tools launched by the government, and more likely to rely on school for non-academic support, such as school meals.
- Specific grades, such as pre-primary and primary students who may have a lower risk of infection compared to older students, and require more childcare when out of school. Nigeria has already resumed classes for some transitional grades, where older students may be more prone to comply with social distancing measures and will be able to prepare and write high-stakes exams to move from one level of education to the next.
- Specific types of schools, where exposure to COVID-19 is reduced due to size, capacity, current enrollment, and the capability to comply with hygiene guidelines.
- Low-risk geographic areas, based on the progression of the pandemic and trends in the number of new confirmed cases and hospitalized patients.
The phased approach should also include staff. Those at higher risk from COVID-19 due to age or underlying medical conditions should be identified before school reopening and prioritized to stay home.
Guidance for Schools
The following examples should be taken into consideration:
Infrastructure- Section off common spaces and adapt floor markings to direct foot-traffic flows and help students and staff maintain social distance.
Health and sanitation-Remind and train students, teachers, and staff on why, when, and how to comply with infection prevention and control measures such as hand washing, social distancing, and other hygiene measures.
School scheduling- Divide students into cohorts (i.e. by grade) and assign different cohorts different days to come to school to reduce the overall concentration of students.
Support for Major Stakeholders
As schools prepare to reopen, the Nigerian government should coordinate with different stakeholders.
- Engage with parents and teachers to define and clearly communicate roles and responsibilities.
- Link public health and school authorities to design, communicate, and deploy a set of public health messages and training for school staff, students, and parents.
- Distribute a “Safe School Reopening Checklist” to facilitate reopening decisions and compliance.
- Ensure back-to-school strategies are implemented appropriately.
Revamping, Not Recovery: Prioritizing Learning
To address the poor learning levels pre-pandemic, and the learning losses induced by the pandemic, it is imperative to incorporate innovative measures to support and accelerate learning when schools reopen. We draw on the available evidence to highlight five crucial approaches.
- Focus on Foundational Learning. This relates to the minimum level of competency required for effective functioning of an individual for higher learning or transition to work. Foundational learning focuses on reading and comprehension (in the language of the learner’s immediate environment) and arithmetic. Typical school schedules and curriculum in Nigeria consist of foundational learning plus other school subjects. However, given the time and learning lost to COVID-19, at least the next two school calendars should place greater focus on foundational learning.
- Implement frequent, decision-relevant learning assessments at the school level. As schools reopen, there is a need to know how far behind students are, and how fast they are recovering. Assessments at the school level, rather than large-scale surveys, will equip school leaders and teachers with locally-relevant information.
- Leverage school reopening to introduce Teaching at the Right Level. School systems in Nigeria are mostly organized by grades, with teaching targeted at grade or age levels. The Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) approach centers school organization and teaching on the skill-level of different learners.
- Pilot and test tailored blended learning approaches. School closures induced by the pandemic have resulted in a surge in the development and uptake of educational technology around the world. However, geographic barriers have given way to new barriers — digital divides — with most schools in Nigeria unable to leverage technology for learning during the pandemic, meaning that students at schools with fewer resources are likely to fall behind. Innovative approaches that are cognizant of infrastructure and knowledge disparities will be crucial during and after the pandemic to ensure a variety of learners can take advantage of in-person and remote opportunities suited to their needs.
- Prioritize the needs of vulnerable students. Given inequalities in learning levels for students that experience various dimensions of poverty and exclusion, it is important to prioritize reopening schools and areas with an overrepresentation of vulnerable populations, including students from low socio-economic backgrounds, rural areas, the Northern region, and students in public schools.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT
The bulk of the responsibility for the school reopening recommendations outlined above lies with state governments and private school leaders. However, the federal government can support this effort in a number of areas:
- Augmenting state and private sector resources that are already depleted due to the COVID-19 shock, and allowing state governments more flexibility in spending their subvention from the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC).
- Being flexible with curriculum standards, so that content fits with local needs and realities.
- Sharing knowledge and learning on successes and failures in the Nigerian context, to be better prepared in the event of a second wave.
- Setting in motion key directions for the long-term restructuring of Nigeria’s education system. The pandemic has made clear that technology is crucial to the education system going forward. It is imperative to integrate digital education and technology into the school system and expand curriculum from the conventional 3Rs (writing, reading, and arithmetic) to a curriculum that is cognizant of the realities of the modern world.