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Re-opening of schools: Rephrasing the question

BY KOFI ANNOR-FREMPONG

THE GOVERNMENT of Ghana took a swift action in response to the management of the emergence of Covid-19 in the country by: (i) enacting legislation to provide legal basis for intervention measures; (ii) taking broad decisions on border and school closures, placing a ban on social gatherings, social distancing and a lockdown of  two major cities, Accra and Kumasi for a period of time; and (iii) proactively tracing, testing, confining and treating infected persons. These measures have been hailed by the international community as best practices and have led to the containment of the spread of the virus and recovery of a good number of infected persons in a relatively short period of time.

Economy

The measures, undoubtedly affected the socio-economic life of the entire country. The economy, businesses and livelihoods have all been affected one way or another in spite of mitigation measures. We are certainly not in normal times and it is doubtful whether we will ever be able to return to pre-pandemic times in the near future. The country is now at cross-roads on the way forward – to lift the measures or not. The fear of re-infection and spread of the virus weighs heavily against the decision to lift the response management measures. Continuing along the current path of restrictions, on the other hand, will increase the hardships on the economy and citizens. It is time to accept the fact that we live in a different era and think through an adaptation process.

Lifting of measures

It is gratifying to note that the government has started broad consultations with various stakeholders to devise ways to lift the measures, albeit gradually, without necessarily spreading the virus. Faith-based organizations responded with a detailed set of mitigation measures to curb the spread should the government ease the ban on church and group gatherings. The Ghana Education Service (GES) has also, on its own, initiated consultations on reopening of schools with stakeholders. The Teachers Unions in the public sector have been invited to a meeting and it is hoped that other stakeholders such as private schools and parent associations will be availed of this opportunity.

Teacher unions

In a reaction to the GES invitation, the Teachers Unions have issued a statement before honouring the invitation to state their position to the effect that current conditions do not warrant reopening of schools. Unlike the faith-based-organisations who face similar conditions as schools, the Unions did not provide any mitigation measures should schools reopen, effectively shutting the door to the reopening option. The implication of such a stance is that schools may only reopen when the pandemic is over or perhaps a vaccine is found to protect the population against the virus.

The virus has come to stay

Various experts on the subject have indicated that the virus has come to stay and is not going to go away anytime soon. We may have to live with it for months, if not years. Does this mean schools will remain closed indefinitely until such a time that the Teacher Unions may consider appropriate? The question on the table, given this scenario, is how can we operate and live,  reasonably “normal lives” within a Covid-19 environment? Rephrasing the question – How do we make our educational system functional within a new reality? Covid-19 reality!

Obviously, there are costs and benefits associated with closure of schools’ same way as it is with reopening. It is quite clear that the position of the Unions considered only one side of the equation, the cost and benefit of closure. To have a balanced view and to help the GES deal with the fact that the virus is going to be with us over a period of time, it will be useful for the Unions/stakeholders to address the cost and benefits of school reopening and propose mitigation measures as was done by the faith-based organizations.

This is the time to put on our thinking caps, weigh the risks and plan strategically to live in a Covid-19 environment. What measures can we put in place to get schools back without endangering the lives of school children, teachers and other staff? The virus will normally be introduced to schools from a home, by a student or a worker.  How can we prevent such an occurrence? What measures/protocols should we put in place to curtail the transmission to and spread in schools? Closure of schools is an easy option and a comfortable one, but the reality is, we will live with the virus for some time and have to learn to adapt to the situation.

Options

The exclusion of all infected persons from the general population has reduced the infection rate significantly and paved the way for a gradual reopening of society, including schools. Some options to consider are: (i) Phasing out classes to reduce numbers. For example, allowing final year students to go back first and complete their examinations within the months of June and July to be followed by other classes; (ii) Reduction in class size to not more than 20 per class; and (iii) operating a shift system.   Social distancing will certainly be a challenge but infection rates can be reduced through the observance of the strict hygiene, testing, isolation and treatment of cases starting from the homes. How do we ensure this is done? How do we get PPE? Wwho pays for them?

A more proactive stance is required rather than the insistence on the current state of affairs.because Covid is here to stay and we have to learn to live with it.

 

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