How can we manage the looming COVID-19 storm in Ghana’s schools?: The best option, to close or not to close?

School Kids333 There has been a lot of calls for the reopened schools to be closed

Wed, 15 Jul 2020 Source: Richard Osei Boateng

On the 22nd and 29th of June, SHS and JHS final year students reported to school respectively, following the government’s phased approach to easing the COVID-19 restrictions in critical areas of the Ghanaian economy.

Subsequently, there have been reports of various COVID-19 positive cases in various Senior High Schools across the country. This has attracted reactions and concerns from various personalities and stakeholders in our Education. As usual, the politicians have assumed their political ends and are doing their usual ‘politicking’. The latest group to make a statement on this matter is the council of P.T.A.

The question is, ‘Have we gotten to an alarming point yet?

Depending on one’s interest or inclination, I know that we certainly will have diverse opinions on the above question. As parents and guardians, it is very natural to be alarmed, especially considering the nature of this virus and how it is causing havoc everywhere in the world. However, I still believe that we ought to stop shot and do a critical analysis of certain critical issues.

Would the story be different if our children were in the house instead of school? Is it possible that the SHS students contracted the virus at home and sent to school? Can we trust the government enough to manage the welfare our children while in school?

Recently, when the first batch of COVID-19 cases were reported at the Accra High School, a host of parents trooped into the school to withdraw their wards home. As I watched parents who had massed up outside the school’s premises, a thought that run through my mind was “What if those children being taken home by parents had already contracted the virus?”. This thought is premised on the fact that, according to the Ghana Health Service, most of the COVID-19 patients in the Country and also in these schools are asymptomatic.

A rather sad event happened at the KNUST senior high school, where teachers looked on unconcerned as a boy suffered because they thought the boy had contracted the virus and out of fear, watched helplessly, leading to the death of an innocent student.

Following this event, an issue that came to the fore was whether the teachers were really given education on the virus and the procedure for managing or getting a suspected case or student conveyed to the hospital. Also, the issue of whether the government has fulfilled its promise of providing PPEs to students and staff of our schools. The headmistress and some staff of the KNUST S.h.S. have since been asked to step aside as a result of the student’s death.

Were these stand-by teachers expressing genuine fear? This is because the GNAT has publicly expressed after this incident, the failure of the government to supply the promised PPEs to the teachers and students to help protect themselves from the pandemic.

Can the teachers, through the government, manage these students better in schools than their parents will do in their homes, relative to their not being exposed to the deadly COVID-19?

This question can be answered both sided, devoid of strict political attachments. Since the students are in school, I believe that it will be easier for the Ghana Health Service and the Ministry of Education, to identify, isolate, treat infected students and further contact trace exposed ones without much difficulty. This will be difficult to do if there were to be at home because most of the infected students would not even report in the first place, there by infecting other people unknowingly and even exposing their parents and family to the deadly virus.

An argument countering that above point is that, in the schools, the students are many, therefore the teachers may be unduly stretched in helping sick students of COVID-19, leading to a high death rate unlike homes where parents are much closer to their children and can easily and urgently report and take them to health facilities in case they fall sick. I believe the above assertions are very true.

Furthermore, one may say that, while the students remain in school, they are fed a well- balanced diet, as a result of the free SHS policy, which boosts their immune systems better than most homes. Thus the students should be kept at school in the care of the government. However, it is a fact that, most parents and homes are also highly able and capable of taking care of their children more than they being at home.

With regards to learning, it is argued that, students will learn well and better prepare for their final examinations as they remain in school better than being at home. This is because at home, most students will rather end up on the streets and markets to sell, there by being ill prepared for their exams and further exposing them to the COVID-19. It is also true that not all parents will make their children sell on the streets but most of them can better assist their children by getting special tutors for them at home, making them better prepared for their final examination and reducing their risks of contracting the COVID-19.

At this juncture, I ask, “Which is Which?” “Should the schools be closed or not?”.

To be able to come to a conclusion, which I believe is still very difficult at this time, owing to the above arguments, we ought to be guided more by the science and facts more than mere political views, emotions or inclinations.

Nothwithstanding, the first option which is very easy to place our hands on, is to either make our WASSCE and BECE students especially go home to prepare to write their examination or to postpone the WASSCE and BECE to a later date by which COVID'S effects would have been mitigated, for our students to come back to school, prepare and write their exams.Also we can cancel these exams entirely for this year, and institute entrance exams for the new SHS and Tertiary entrants next year.

Furthermore, I still believe that the argument should not be just to close the school or not. I think as a country, we must swiftly task the West Africa Examination council to as a matter of urgency,look at the possibility of organizing this year’s WASSCE and BECE online. I believe that it is time for this all important decision. If this decision is fully taken, I believe we can shut the schools safely and pragmatically.

One may argue that most pupils are in villages and have no phones or access to the internet and cannot take these examinations. This has been our argument always as a nation. I will understand in a way if, this argument is restricted to the JHS pupils. However, I will strongly resist any one who makes same argument for an SHS student. We have no idea the kinds of android phones that are used by our SHS students especially.

The various schools should be tasked to form WhatsApp platforms for their SHS students, through which they will be able to send them test documents to read at home, in order to prepare for their exams online. When this is done, there will be no need keeping the students at school, not forgetting the fact that they are still not immune from getting the COVID-19 even at home.

For the JHS pupils, I believe the government can add a radio learning module to their Ghana learning TV series to get even the remotest pupils prepared via radio learning for their exams, since a radio is very common to have. To be able to write their exams, I believe the government should partner the telecommunication providers (MTN, VODAFONE, AIRTEL TIGO etc.) to build up mobile internet cafes which will be deployed to these remote areas, for the pupils to be able to write their exams, under the supervision of WAEC officials and officials of the Ghana Health Service.

I believe that we have really come far as a country. The COVID-19 is here with us and not going anytime soon. However, this does not mean that we should unduly expose our innocent future leaders to the ‘harsh tooth’ of the pandemic. In the president’s own popular statements, “We know how to bring back businesses but what we do not know is how to bring back human lives”.

Columnist: Richard Osei Boateng