Bellarmine Nneji

As the Federal Government braces to reopen the schools and higher institutions amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, lecturers and teachers will automatically become frontline workers. This is because there is a possibility of having infected students in the institutions, especially asymptomatic ones. Once a student begins to manifest symptoms, the first line and onus of responsibility rests on the teacher or lecturer who has both an administrative and ethical duty to ensure the safety of his or her constituency (the classroom). Lecturers and most especially teachers in the schools act in loco parentis. They are always the first point of call when a child becomes sick in the classroom or school environment. This aspect makes them frontline workers. Their diligence or indifference can worsen or make better any precarious situation especially during this pandemic period. There is shift of responsibilities.

This situation throws up a lot of onerous challenges both at the individual and institutional levels. This is where the Unions have to take over responsibilities. In periods of pandemics, degrees of responsibilities are jacked up for all frontline workers. The usual primary steps following the enlightenment on the nature of the pandemic is the provision of personal protective equipments (PPE). The government should ensure that teachers and lecturers are provided with the necessary PPEs. The average Nigerian believes that only health workers are frontline workers. It may not be a surprise that the government and management of various higher institutions may equally buy the idea that teachers and lecturers are not frontline workers in the present situation should the schools reopen amidst the pandemic. Available information indicate that majority of our health institutions are yet to be provided with the necessary PPEs. If this is the case, one now imagines how difficult it would be to convince the appropriate and relevant authorities on the cogency for PPEs for the teachers and lecturers. This situation therefore calls for a timely assessment and intervention on this issue.

The first law of life is self-preservation. Every lecturer and teacher should make extra effort to stay safe both in the classrooms and in the offices. Many health officials were infected (in the line of duty) by the patients they were taking care of. Such a situation can equally be obtainable in the school setting as lecturers and teachers become frontline workers. Students who journeyed to Lagos, Abuja and outside Nigeria will come to the classrooms. No one knows their health status vis-a-vis the coronavirus. At this point one question looks pertinent: Is there any need to query their travel histories? This would be herculean indeed. There is also the need to ensure that students who return do not violate safety guidelines for the sake of both themselves and their teachers or lecturers. Some students can be stubborn and may be beyond the control of the teachers and lecturers. This is where the school authorities have to intercede. The most volatile aspect of the entire scenario is the social, or better put, physical distancing rules. Many lectures have a large population that no lecture hall can accommodate such if the physical distancing rules are to be respected. This is a serious challenge. This pandemic is a serious catalyst. It has exposed a lot, will still continue to expose. The politics of course allocation in our higher institutions is challenged by the physical distancing rule. How can one lecturer appropriate a population that no one hall can accommodate should the physical distancing rule be religiously followed? Now we have to choose between profit making and safety of the students to be jam packed into a hall while the lecturer stays at a safe distance to deliver the lecture.

There ought to be handy equipment like the digital thermometer, buckets filled with detergents, hand-sanitizers at all the classroom entrances. The school clinics should be ready to handle any eventuality should such occur. The lecturers and teachers should as a matter of fact endeavour to further enlighten the students on the necessary precautionary measures against the coronavirus. This is important because there is a tendency for the students to lose focus after a long period of disconnect as they surely have lots of socialising to unleash.

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The lecturers and teachers should be on their guards bearing the health and safety of their families in mind. They are now frontline workers. They shouldn’t carry the virus home and infect their families. They should be wary and circumspect in all their dealings with the returning students. They should not return home as contagions.

The hostels are another volatile transmission centres. Everyone knows that there is no physical distancing in the Nigerian students’ hostels, even in rented apartments, students sleep like packed sardines. Some inhale what others exhale. These are a group of people with some who came in from highly infected areas and also who mingle outside their institutions for other non-academic businesses. In all these, the point of convergence remains the lecturers and teachers, the latest frontline workers. It may not be out of place to argue for the right to hazard allowances for the lecturers and teachers as frontline workers. However, this demands a different type of logic and approach outside this current precautionary narrative. This is in the hope that the government acknowledges that they are really frontline workers. May be to prove such a point, we may need a Socratic oath in place of Hippocratic oath to convince the government of the newly acquired status of the lecturers and teachers as frontline workers.

The reopening of schools and higher institutions will definitely create a new level of tensions and responsibilities. The centre of concentration will now be shifted to the schools. Who will regulate and monitor the environment with respect to the observation of government stipulated guidelines? The schools, especially our higher institutions will be another point of circulation and spread of the virus. Israel, for instance, reopened their schools and experienced a surge in the infection rate and was forced to close the schools again. Nigeria needs to learn from this Israeli experience and take adequate precautionary measures. We need to assess between Israel and Nigeria which one is a more  orderly society to know which one will be worse off with regards to reopening of schools amidst the pandemic. This is based on the fact that there are lots of conspiracy theories, especially in Nigeria, threatening the efforts to control the pandemic. UNICEF had provided some roadmaps for the safe reopening of schools and higher institutions. Some of the guidelines include ensuring conditions that reduce the transmission of the virus such as provision of clean water for hand washing, health protocols for suspected sickness; ensuring wellness and protection of students’ wellbeing through enhanced referral mechanisms. These should not be taken for granted by all institutions. The major onus falls on the government.

There is need to douse tensions and other apprehensions by being adequately prepared and by the government showing willingness to assist the lecturers and teachers by being proactive towards their welfare.

Dr. Nneji writes from Department of Educational Foundations, Alvan Ikoku Federal College of Education, Owerri