As 2020, the year like no other ends, Kofoworola Belo-osagie, Damola Kola-Dare and Yemisi Olaosun (of The Nation) examine three issues that would remain indelible for a long time to come.
COVID-19 School closures
If a year could have been skipped, 2020 is that year thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic dealt a heavy blow on the global school system and disrupted a magnitude that experts have described as unprecedented. According to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), over 1.5 billion learners in 165 schools representing about 87 percent of the world’s school population were affected by school closures caused by the pandemic
In Nigeria, the impact was felt disproportionately at all levels of the school eco-system – from pre-school to tertiary. Schools were closed for at least six months from March 23, 2020 when the Federal Government directed for school closures to check the spread of the virus. While primary and secondary schools resumed from October, resumption at tertiary level depended on the institutions’ ownership structure.
Many private tertiary institutions, state universities, polytechnics and colleges of education implemented staggered resumption dates and classes in line with the COVID-19 safety protocols set by the Nigerian Centre for Diseases Control (NCDC), students attending the 44 federal universities could not resume because of the strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) whoch lasted nine months.
They would now have to wait longer than anticipated to get back to school because the Federal Government announced that universities should suspend academic activities from December 25, 2020 till further notice. The Chairman of the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19, Mr. Boss Mustapha, also said schools would remain shut until at least January 18, 2020 because a second wave of the virus had led to a surge of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Nigeria.
The school closures exposed the deficit of e-learning infrastructure/system in Nigeria and sent the government, donor agencies, NGOs and private sector scurrying to provide students with alternative learning solutions when physical classes cannot hold.
United Nations agencies such as UNICEF and UNESCO provided a plethora of digital resources that countries, schools and parents could access to help students keep learning while at home.
For example, UNICEF collaborated with HITCH to boost children’s education during the pandemic through a dynamic online/offline educational and vocational video platform; UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning supported educational planners, policy-makers, and others by providing resources and materials to address the learning crisis.
The Federal Government of Nigeria also partnered with various digital solutions providers from internationally-recognised bodies like Microsoft and IBM to other local solutions providers like Skool Media, schoolgate.ng and mobileclassroom.com.ng to make digital training available to learners at little or no cost. The Telecommunications companies were also brought onboard to offer data-free access to such content to reduce the burden on parents.
In addition to these, many other state-government-driven and private-sector driven initiatives were introduced. Many state governments such as Lagos, Ekiti, and Ogun started airing classes on television and radio with such content also available to learners online. Some states, like Lagos and Edo partnered with organisations like Bridge International Academies to device means to support learning at home.
There were also e-learning interventions at school level – with various schools using platforms suitable for their clientele to continue teaching their pupils at home. From low-technology platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram to more sophisticated platforms like Zoom, Google classrooms, Microsoft Teams, among others, schools found a way to continue teaching.
However, many public tertiary institutions were unable to cope with the demands of online learning compared to the primary and secondary levels. The virtual learning infrastructure of most public tertiary institutions was almost non-existent such that some schools did not even attempt virtual classes. Those that started were unable to continue as a result of poor network, high cost of data, and poor handling of course content, among others.
Vice-Chancellor of the Federal University, Oye Ekiti (FUOYE), Prof. Kayode Soremekun said virtual learning was not feasible in the institution because there was no infrastructure to aid such.
“I have read it that some universities have switched to the other mode of learning. But I do not think that this can obtain in Nigeria for now.
“We lack the infrastructural network for virtual mode of learning. For instance, a basic resource like power is not available. So how then can we switch suddenly to this mode of learning? Putting in place this mode of learning is not instant coffee! So what is to be done can only be feasible in a long-term context,” he said.
Generally, how effective e-learning interventions were was another matter. Many parents complained about the high cost of accessing e-learning classes on a daily basis in a period when job and income losses were rife. From cost of devices and data for internet access to providing alternative power sources, and fueling generators, many parents could not cope and gave up along the line. Even for those who could afford to provide e-learning, playing the dual roles of parent and teacher at the same time proved too difficult and learning took a back seat.
Nine-month ASUU STRIKE
On December 23, 2020, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) suspended its strike that it started March 23 – about the same time the Federal Government first closed schools.
The strike was the longest strike in the history of the country since 1999. Academic activities were halted for nine months.
The union went on over the non-implementation of its 2009 agreement and a 2013 follow up with the Federal Government. The main issue was that the Federal Governemnt had defaulted in payment of earned academic allowances to the lecturers as well as failed to pay the N200 billion it promised to revitalise infrastructure of public universities.
The disagreement over the Federal Government’s insistence on placing all its workers on the Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System (IPPIS) was also a major reason for the strike. The union refused to get on the system, claiming that it centralised corruption and did not understand the peculiarities of the mobility enjoyed by university teachers.
The union directed it members not to enrol on IPPIS because it would erode university autonomy. In the place of IPPIS, ASUU came up with its own solution – the University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS) – which the Federal Government is currently testing through the Nigerian Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA).
After almost nine months of negotiations, the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige, said Federal Government finally agreed to pay N40 billion as earned allowances this month and inject N30 billion into universities by January 31, 2020. National President of the union, Prof.Biodun Ogunyemi however said ASUU would not hesitate to resume the strike if the government fails to keep its promises.
He said: “The time frame is a bit elastic. There are some items that are supposed to be addressed in January. There are some others that will drag till March or thereabout.
“What we have done is to give the government the benefit of doubt and that is why we have added the caveat. Should the government renege, our members are not tired of withdrawing their services.”
However, even though ASUU has suspended its own strike, the chances of a quick resumption of academic activities once COVID-19 closure is lifted may not materialize as the three other workers’ unions in the university (the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities – SSANU; the National Association of Academic Technologists – NAAT; and the Non-Academic Staff Union – NASU) have kicked against the sharing formula for the earned allowances – which allocates 75 per cent to ASUU and 25 per cent to the other unions to share. The unions may begin another battle about the sharing formula next year which may further extend the closure of universities.