On reopening of Universities in Nigeria: Lessons from the U.S

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By Niyi Akinnaso

I have had over 50 years of continuous relationship with universities at home and abroad. True, my role in the university system has changed over the years, the university still remains my world. I am, therefore, anxious to see universities reopen as soon as possible. The question is how soon will that be?

Although the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 admitted that consultations with major stakeholders in higher education are ongoing, it still could not pronounce a definitive date for reopening universities. Accordingly, last Friday, August 28, 2020, I argued during a virtual meeting in favour of delaying the reopening of universities in Nigeria until January, 2021.

Since that time, however, the global trend seems to favour reopening universities this September, for in-class learning, some for online learning, and yet others for a hybrid of the two. Indeed, some universities in the United States and elsewhere have reopened already.

On reopening of Universities in Nigeria

Here in Nigeria, some states, including Lagos and Osun, have set reopening dates for this September. It is clear, therefore, that the reopening of universities nationwide is imminent.

Accordingly, it is important to emphasize the factors that must be taken into account in addition to whatever guidelines the Federal Government may provide.

The key factor to consider is the behaviour of the coronavirus, known as COVID-19, which led to the closure of universities in March in the first place. Within the last six months, the virus has infected about 55,000 people in Nigeria and killed over 1000, male and female, young and old.

The global picture is even more disturbing. Over 25 million people have been infected and over 850,000 have died of the coronavirus disease. True, those with pre-existing conditions, such as heart, kidney, or lung disease, are predisposed to death once infected, the fact is that the virus has killed just about anyone, young or old.

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Although the figures in Nigeria seem to be going down, the reality is that the number of tests conducted so far in Nigeria is far too few, compared to the total population. After six full months of testing, less than 404,000 samples have been tested among a population of about 200 million! This translates to an average of about 67,000 tests per month or just over 2,000 tests per day.

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What is even more worrisome is the apparent dereliction of many states in the collection of samples, despite attempts by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and the PTF to ramp up testing by expanding collection centres to various Local Government Areas and increasing the number of testing centres.

The immediate consequence of this dereliction of duty is that there will be vectors of the coronavirus disease in various communities, who are spreading the disease. This is a very serious problem because quite a number of those infected may be asymptomatic, that is, they may not readily manifest signs of the disease and, therefore, transmit it unknowingly.

The real danger of reopening in this situation is the variety of opportunities that university campuses offer for the spread of the virus. First, classrooms, dormitories, dining rooms, sports arenas, and parks provide spaces for the virus to spread, partly because they offer opportunities for close contact and partly because students are difficult to control once left by themselves. They belong to the care-free group, typically between 15 and 25 years old.

This is where we can learn from the experiences of universities in the United States, which have reopened. Within two weeks of resuming classes, American Colleges and Universities reported over 10,000 COVID-19 cases in 36 states. For example, as of August 30, 2020, the University of Alabama reported 1,368 cases among faculty, staff, and students since August 19, 2020.

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These figures should be understood within the context of 26,000 coronavirus cases and 64 deaths reported by The New York Times in a survey of about 1,500 American Colleges and Universities since the pandemic began.

The recent infections since the universities reopened in August occurred because faculty, staff, and students converged on their institutions from various destinations across the country, bringing along with them the coronavirus infection and infecting others around them on campus. Classrooms, hostel common rooms, dining halls, and party venues provided super-spreading spaces for the infection.

In order to avoid this problem altogether or in reaction to it, some universities called off in-person classes for undergraduates alone, while others called off in-person classes across the board. Yet other universities decided to provide only online classes for the entire 2020/2021 academic session, taking the lead of Cambridge University in England and the California State University System in the United States.

What must be borne in mind here is that these American Universities have sufficient resources for testing, tracing, isolating, and treating infected students. For example, the University of Alabama offered return-to-campus COVID-19 test for its entire population of 38,563. Another university designated one of its off-campus structures as Isolation Centre for positive cases. Most Nigerian universities lack these resources.

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The probability of the coronavirus following some faculty, staff, or student to some university campus in Nigeria is very high, regardless of the negative test certificates they may bring. The focus, therefore, should be on enforcing the risk-mitigation measures and early detection of infection cases within the campus.

A key risk-mitigation measure that may pose a serious challenge is social distancing in hostels, classrooms, and dining halls. One way of ensuring compliance with this measure is to reopen the universities in phases. The problem, though, is that a number of university courses are interconnected such that a 400-level student may need a 200-level course.

On the other hand, some faculty may not be able to carry their full load of teaching if all classes are not running. Yet, some phasing is necessary as many universities may not be able to accommodate all their students at once and still be able to maintain social distancing.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for Nigerian universities is how to detect, track, isolate, and treat infected members of the university community. In order to meet this challenge, the NCDC should make each university a sample collection centre. Each university should, in turn, identify the nearest testing centre and plan a relationship with it ahead of resumption.

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Chila Andrew Aondofa

Founder/Team lead at TheAbusite.com | Abusite | Entrepreneur | Activist | Humanitarian | All Inquiries to info@theabusites.com. SMS/WhatsApp +2349015751816

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