By Chukwudumebi Norbert ATTA, PhD
The place and purpose of the public-school system in Nigeria is indisputable. Public schools are those schools generally owned-by, funded and managed by the government. Thus, the government through its agencies, funds, builds and repairs, and manages public schools including staff recruitment and remuneration/motivation. In contrast to the public schools are the private schools which are owned and operated by individuals and organizations, with minimal interest or intervention, from the government.
Despite its shortcomings, the public schools appeal to the populace for obvious reasons, including that (since they are owned and funded by government); they ordinarily have better structure and manpower, are better managed, and are cheaper. As a consequence, the public schools are more popular and better patronized by parents, given especially the exorbitant fees and tuitions charged by private schools. The increasing population of Nigerians side by side the increase in poverty level, has made the public schools the only, or better, option to more Nigerians.
The public schools, therefore, play a great role in the educational development of Nigerians. Since they are supposedly cheaper, better equipped and staffed, the public schools typically provide an adequate learning environment and opportunities for many Nigerians to gain some formal education. They (public schools) help parents and guardians (especially the many poor ones), to provide education for their children and wards. Again, the quality of education that the public schools archetypal offer, and the incentives it gives to staff (academic and non-academic alike), distinguishes it.
Unfortunately, the public schools in Nigeria are not meeting or living up to its ideals or bidding, even pre COVID-19. Hence, the state of public schools, the quality of education it provides, and the consequent poor performance by pupils and students in core exams, are a minus to the ideals of the public school. These maladies have been linked to poor funding, lack of interests, poor management and supervision, among others. What concerns us in this write up is, however, not the fact that the public-school system in Nigeria has not lived up to its promises, especially given its status, its students’ strength, and the investments by government at the three levels: – local, State and Federal, in it. It is rather the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic poses to the public-school system in Nigeria.
Unquestionably, the corona virus (COVID-19) pandemic has had widespread impact on the world, as it (COVID-19) has wrought so much damage on humanity, from its wake through its continuing spread. The COVID-19 menace has left many asking seriously if things would ever be normal again?
As per history, the Corona viruses are generally a group of viruses that affect human (and other mammal’s) respiratory tract and guts, with the current corona virus outbreak known as corona virus disease 2019, or COVID-19. The prevalent symptoms of Corona virus are fever, dry cough, shortness of breath and tiredness, but in extreme cases, it could result in decreased white blood cell, and kidney failures, and death. Alarmingly, some of those affected by the virus show no symptoms, and are referred to as asymptomatic.
Like the other layers or strata of the Nigerian society, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the public-school system in Nigeria country at large, too. Agreed that there are both private (owned and operated by individuals and groups or organizations) and public schools (fully-owned, funded and managed by the government including in places where communities built schools and handed it or them over to the government) in Nigeria, our concern in this essay is the fate of the public schools, particularly the pre-tertiary ones, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The negative impact of COVID-19 to education in general, and to the public pre-tertiary education in Nigeria is enormous. The COVID-19 pandemic, among other things, led to the closure of schools, to teachers stopped from carrying on their work in the classrooms, to pupils and students being forced to stay home, and to parents having the added burden of managing their school aged children and wards during what are typically school hours. All these has affected the overall balance, or equilibrium of the dramatis personae (students, teachers and parents), and the society at large.
In some more details, part of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the public-school pupil and students, is that that it impedes the progress of the pupil and students in their studies and learning. This is most true of pupils and students in the rural areas, where many of them have little or no impetus (or motivation), to study on their own. The COVID-19 pandemic has also laid more responsibilities on the parents, with some of them doubling as classroom teachers and even prefects, and thereby adding to stress in the family. Also, the classroom teachers have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Their overall job satisfaction derived from teaching and updating themselves through on-going training and lessons preparation, is affected and blighted by the pandemic, especially the uncertainty around it. Hence, instead of being busy in the classroom teaching the teachers have been forced by the COVID-19 pandemic to remain at home, generally redundant. In terms of motivation, there is no uniformity on the remuneration of public-school staff during the COVID-19 pandemic, with some staff paid in full, others in parts, and still some not paid at all.
In all, the public-school system (in Nigeria) has been affected greatly by the COVID-19 pandemic. Its negative effects – on the pupil/students, teachers, and parents – are indeed enormous. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has not only challenged state of public-school system in Nigeria, including the management and administration of pre-tertiary public-schools, but also challenges education managers in Nigeria. Hence, the question: what problems and lessons are there in the COVID-19 pandemic vis-à-vis public pre-tertiary schools and what could be done to avert a repeat of the ugly situation we presently have or live?
As already hinted, the public-school system in Nigeria has been in the throes of manifest downward drift over the years, especially since after the seizure of academic powers from the missionaries in the early 70s. In fact, successive governments – military and civilian, have not done enough to raise the standard or quality of education in the public schools, which has left Nigeria and Nigerians witnessing a continued fall in the prestige, value and quality of public schools, and an attendant proliferation of private schools (some of which are but ‘miracle exam centers’). A downward spiral that has been attributed to such factors as poor funding, poor learning environment, poor staffing, poor supervision, poor management, among others; with its consequences being poor quality of education, mass failure in core exams, examination malpractices etc.
Given the pre-COVID-19 state of the public-school system in Nigeria, one could say that the COVID-19 pandemic has only ended up worsening an already bad situation. Nevertheless, COVID-19 pandemic despite taking the world by surprise, including Nigeria, provides opportunity for the government and the people to rethink and rework the public-school system in Nigeria. First, the COVID-19 pandemic asks questions about governments’ proactive planning for eventualities in the area of education, given especially the disarray that the pandemic threw the society into. Secondly, it challenges the government on the need to upgrade the quality of education in public schools, including in terms of material or structural and manpower aspects, especially in the rural areas that almost seem forgotten. For example, it very unfortunate that very few schools could employ modern communication technology in teaching pupils and students during the nearly four months lockdown occasioned by the pandemic. Hence, efforts at advancing in technology or living up to the technological changes in parts of the world, in the Nigeria public pre-tertiary schools, would do a lot of good in education, and help make any future occurrence of a virus or some other natural plague, milder. Again, the added responsibility placed on parents and guardians by the COVID-19 pandemic by the unanticipated long-at-home presence of their wards and children could have been ameliorated extensively, if government had provided such basic necessities as food, water and energy, etc., as they which would have surely helped parents discharge their added task of teaching and monitoring, with less pain.
In conclusion, we note that while the COVID-19 pandemic has posed a great drawback to the different strata of the society, we have tried to underscore its and the challenges it poses, to the public pre-tertiary school system in Nigeria. We note that while the state of public schools in Nigeria remains worrisome (pre-COVID-19), and has been worsened by the pandemic, that the corona virus menace could and should be an opportunity for the government to rethink public-school system in Nigeria, especially against the backdrop of the enormous role that the public school system has continued to play in the provision of education to/for Nigerians. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic could be an opportunity for the rebirth of public-school systems in Nigeria, including improving its funding, management and its overall development.