The Face-off Over Ebola

Primary and secondary school teachers may boycott classes this week over Ebola

The-Nation-Shekarau

Shekarau

Ordinarily, controversy hardly surrounds resumption dates for primary and secondary schools in Nigeria. But from all indications, that is the situation currently facing that sector as the Nigerian Union of Teachers, NUT, and the federal government disagree over the appropriate time for all primary and secondary schools to reopen for the new academic year.

The federal government had slated Monday, September 22 for schools to resume for the new academic year. But the NUT, which expressed concern over a possible spread of the Ebola virus disease, EVD, in the country, advised that the date be shifted.

The disagreement ensued between the union and government when the latter shifted backward the resumption date of schools from October 13 to September 22 upon the conviction that the Ebola fever had been sufficiently curtailed in the country. But the NUT was not comfortable with this change of mind, saying that even if there were no evident cases of the disease in the country, it was not a guarantee that it could not occur again. The union argued that if schools must resume on the government-chosen day, all preventive and protective measures such as EVD training for teachers, infrared thermometers, sanitisers, running water and gloves must be provided in all schools before September 22.

In an interview with this magazine, Segun Raheem, chairman, Lagos State NUT chapter, reiterated what the body’s national president had told newsmen in Abuja, Tuesday, September 16. He said, “the federal government has directed all states to put in place some preventive and safety gadgets before resumption to avoid the spread of EVD in schools. However, the Lagos State government has not provided those requirements. And if they are not in place by September 22, schools in the state will remain under lock and key”.

The-Nation-Cross-sectionBut the federal and some state governments (including Lagos, Kwara and Ondo) are ignoring the union’s threat. At a meeting of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and members of the Nigerian Medical Association, NMA, held Tuesday, September 16, on the subject of Ebola and the resumption date for schools, Ibrahim Shekarau, minister of education, insisted that the federal government would not change the new date. Addressing journalists after the meeting, the minister said schools would re-open for a new academic session on September 22. “A unanimous decision was taken after a meeting with all state education commissioners and the health ministry and there is no going back on the resumption date,” Shekarau said. He said the House of Representatives Committee had to call the meeting over concerns raised by some parents and groups who have questioned the decision of the federal government to have schools re-opened in September.

Meanwhile, as parts of its effort to prepare Nigerian schools for the new academic session and to ensure an Ebola-free environment, the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, said it had trained over 5,000 teachers in Port Harcourt, one of the states hit by the disease, in various capacities to prevent its outbreak in schools. Although it commended the move, NUT said the number of teachers trained was not enough. Michael Olukoya, national president of the union, said last week that only a few states had trained teachers on the EVD. “Asking teachers to resume without equipping the schools is like asking them to go with bare hands into Sambisa forest,” Olukoya said, obliquely referring to the operational fortress of the dreaded terrorist group, Boko Haram.

Unlike the NUT, however, the NMA, which was initially in league with the teachers and had objected to the September resumption date, made a U-turn and supported the federal government after its meeting with the latter and other stakeholders last week, a position confirmed by Kayode Obembe, its president.

Throwing its weight behind its federal counterpart, the Lagos State government, in a statement, directed “all public and private educational institutions in the state to accordingly comply with the directive by the federal government”. President Goodluck Jonathan also appealed to the NUT and other unions to resume work on September 22. Jonathan assured the union that Ebola has been successfully contained in the country. He also said that government has taken “adequate and globally” acceptable measures to check the spread of the disease in the country. Keeping Nigerian schools under lock and key, he maintained, would send wrong signals to other countries, which may begin to treat all Nigerian travellers as Ebola carriers.

To be on the safe side however, the NMA emphasised the need for government to focus on maintaining the “highest level of vigilance” at the nation’s several entry points, in addition to resuscitating infectious disease hospitals in the states.

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