The “new normal” took a further step towards entrenching itself when some students returned to school last week. Students such as final year students in universities and senior high schools went back to prepare and write their final exams. Other continuing students will return according to schedule this week and the next. The decision to reopen schools underlines the idea that the pandemic will be with us longer than we thought, so we have to adapt our lives accordingly.
Returning to school would never be the same as before. First Day used to be full of hugs, handshakes, high fives and many different forms of physical camaraderie as people meet up after a long absence. This time, any such excitement must be tempered by the new reality that governs our lives. The closest physical embrace may be an elbow touch but that is nowhere as satisfying as a full bear hug. But fear not, young people will find a way!
The fact that all students will have half their faces covered in public and in their dorms will serve as a constant reminder that things are not what they used to be. The government has provided masks, sanitisers, soap and fumigation material to all schools to ensure that students return to safely disinfected spaces. However, with all that, there is no doubt some risk involved in sending students back to school during a pandemic. Previously, the received wisdom was to send students home at the outbreak of any epidemic to stop the disease from spreading in schools. Schools are places where epidemics thrive because people live in close quarters and share many spaces and amenities. Indeed, this was the logic that sent home students in the first place. To send them back when the numbers are much higher definitely represents a risk. However, the government believes that the time has come to reopen society and the economy, which is in line with what is happening in other parts of the world.
Education of young people is one of the most important tasks in any society and if that process is interrupted for too long its adverse consequences would be felt for years even after the pandemic is over. An example of this is the disruption in the academic years in the early 1980s due to the 1981 coup. The ripple effect went on for years and students had to wait for at least one year before going from secondary to university or college. Therefore, it is good for final year students to have the opportunity to write their exams and for continuing students to return to their studies when the time comes.
In doing so, schools and parents have their responsibilities cut out. In addition to ensuring that students succeed at what they are meant to do at school, this time, an even more important outcome is for every student to return home healthy at the end of the school term. Even more critically than that, schools must prevent infections and must have the ability to detect infections and isolate any unfortunate cases that may arise. This is a tall order. Schools are not hospitals and may not have the facilities to do what hospitals can and must offer. So what are they to do in order to ensure that schools remain safe and infection free?
The government’s guidelines are in force, and the President said in his 11th update address that it is now compulsory for all Ghanaians to wear masks in public. That should be rigorously enforced in schools; the school authorities must be responsible for any breaches in that order.
Parents also have a major role to play, especially regarding day pupils in secondary and junior secondary schools. One of the places where the disease can be easily picked up is in public transport. Ideally, all public transport must be disinfected regularly but we must be realistic. This is not likely to happen, so everyone has to be responsible for their own health and safety in trotros and other public transport. Parents have to ensure that their charges and children are suitably prepared every day to face the reality of Covid 19 lurking around the corner.
We all know that managing Covid 19 even at the personal level can be daunting, which is why correct information is vital in the fight against the pandemic. The United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, WHO and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, IFRC, have jointly published a document called Key Messages and Actions for COVID-19 Prevention and Control in Schools. It is available for free online and can be easily accessed. It is a very useful and detailed resource which provides information for many different kinds of school situations.
In addition to its own guidelines, it would be helpful for the education authorities to make the Chapter dedicated to administrators, teachers and staff available to all schools. This would be useful because many parents have openly expressed their unease at sending their children back to school during such a serious pandemic. Much of the anxiety is due to conflicting and false information. The UNICEF guidelines are simple and practical and offer best practices for schools.
The document explains the following with clarity and simplicity and should be recommended best practice for all schools:
• Implement social distancing practices that may include:
• Staggering the beginning and end of the school day
• Cancelling assemblies, sports games and other events that create crowded conditions
• When possible, create space for children’s desks to be at least one metre apart
• Teach and model creating space and avoiding unnecessary touching
• Establish procedures if students or staff become unwell
• Plan ahead with local health authorities, school health staff and update emergency contact lists.
• Ensure a procedure for separating sick students and staff from those who are well – without creating
• stigma – and a process for informing parents/caregivers, and consulting with health care providers/health authorities wherever possible. Students/staff may need to be referred directly to a health facility, depending on the situation/context, or sent home.
• Share procedures with staff, parents and students ahead of time.
We know that many students have access to mobile phones and will therefore be receiving fake news about Covid 19. It is important for schools to discuss information about the pandemic regularly so that they will be able to tell fake from real information.
Writer: Nana Kwasi Gyan Apenteng