Unlocking the Economy and Plight of Private School Owners

By Olabisi Deji-Folutile 

President Muhammadu Buhari was presented with two difficult choices early this week as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on – a choice to continue the lockdown of Lagos, Ogun and the Federal Capital Territory to further curtail the spread of the pandemic; or a decision to relax lockdown in these states and the FCT for businesses to reopen. Each of the two choices had its own consequences. Although the Minister of Health, Osagie Ehanire, didn’t quite express it, one could feel his pains while responding to journalists’ enquiry on when the economy was likely to be unlocked during one of the briefings of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19. He said he had presented the facts of the situation to the President and that only the President could take a decision on the matter. Truly, opening the economy at this time appears to be a risk, looking at things from a scientific point of view. Not with the rising figures of infected cases amid low testing capacity.

On the other hand, the pressure on the President to open up the economy was enormous. Businesses are desperate to survive and people are no longer patient. In Lagos, people are already disobeying lockdown order so as to keep body and soul together. No one can blame them. It’s tough to keep the economy grounded in the face of hunger and job losses, without palliatives that go round from government. Unfortunately, the slow pace of testing is not helping matters. For more than one month of total lockdown, barely 10,000 people have been tested for COVID-19 infection in Nigeria’s population of nearly 200 million.

To worsen the situation, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, said it was targeting two million people for testing in the next three months. Simply put, it would take three months to test about 10 per cent of Nigeria’s population. Even at that, the agency’s Director-General, Chikwe Ihekweazu, said that was a very ambitious target. So, where do people start? For how long would they have to wait? It’s obvious Nigeria does not have the capacity to deal with the problem. So, heads or tails, none of the decisions would be palatable to the citizens.

Anyway, the President has taken a decision. All things being equal, partial economic activities should resume in Lagos, Ogun states and the FCT on May 4, going by the President’s nationwide broadcast on April 27. The President had given economic reasons for relaxing the total lockdown. Since many workplaces are opening as from Monday, school owners also wanted to know when schools would be reopening. The Minister of State for Education, Emeka Nwajiuba, said there was no date yet as Nigeria would not want to put its children at risk. According to the minister, none of these schools could function on their own without society.

The minister is absolutely right on the need to protect the lives of Nigerian children. The poser to the education minister, however, is: how is the government planning to take care of the business interest of these school owners since they are also business people in their own rights? If the Federal Government is opening up the economy for business reason, what provision is the country making for businesses that could not possibly open because of the good of all?

Recall that Lagos State has warned private schools against commencing the third term academic session. The FCT also gave a similar warning. Meanwhile, many states have commenced radio classes for pupils in public schools to keep them busy. Private school owners have also tried to offer online classes to their pupils as well. But, in many cases, parents are being asked to pay for this service. This has resulted in a dilemma. Parents want to know what they are paying for. If schools are not starting the third term, what would children be learning online? And if parents pay for online teaching, would that take care of third term school fees?

Already, nothing much is happening at the tertiary level in terms of online teaching. Many private higher institutions are not doing anything. The few ones running online are complaining of huge data cost. Lagos State is also trying to enforce online teaching in its university and polytechnic, but students are citing the high cost of data and other factors as reasons why it won’t work.

Education is a business that is highly regulated in Nigeria. A lot of things are controlled by the government. That is why the sector is likely to be worst hit by this pandemic. Considering that school environments naturally encourage large gathering, which is often discouraged to curb the spread of coronavirus, schools may have to remain shut long after lockdown is relaxed.

The logical thing, therefore, in this circumstance, is for the government to engage in meaningful discussion with private education providers on how to ease the burden that could be imposed on them by prolonged school closure. This is important because school owners are also business entrepreneurs that may go bankrupt without reliefs from the government. If schools have to wait for this virus to go before they can resume business, I don’t know how many of them will survive This is why I think the government should consider a bailout for some of them.

We can’t afford to dismiss these private school operators. They have been formidable partners with the government over the years in meeting the educational needs of Nigerians. Let’s take universities as an example. Nigeria currently has 43 federal universities, 52 state universities and 79 private universities. At the secondary school level, data from the National Bureau of Statistics show that there were 967,847 public secondary schools in Nigeria in 2017 and 279, 204 private schools in the same year. We know that the number of private schools is likely to be higher than this because many of them are not registered. We may argue that the owners are in business but they are also helping the government to widen access to education.

As business entities, these private schools are also employers of labour. Their interventions go a long way in reducing unemployment in the country. So, they are stakeholders that cannot be ignored. The government should also remember that these schools have bills to pay. How do you pay teachers for doing nothing? And if these schools decide not to pay, it is likely to become a problem for the larger society. Besides, most of their workers are Nigerians, so government should be interested in their plight. The government cannot justify locking down a sector of the economy while unlocking others without showing consideration for the sector locked down.

That is why the Federal Government should find a way of making things work for everyone including education providers in the private sector. There is no guarantee that schools will reopen soon going by how far Nigeria has been able to manage this pandemic. Thus far, Nigeria has neither done enough tests nor showed any capacity to do so in the nearest future. Data from worldmeters.info describe Nigeria as a country having one of the worst testing coverage in the world.

To help school owners, the government could consider working out some palliatives for registered schools to ease the burden of keeping schools running without students during this period. This may not be an easy option for a government that is also paying its teachers for doing nothing as it were, but doing this is in the overall interest of the nation. With this, private school providers won’t have any reason to think that they are being singled out to suffer the consequences of COVID-19 in Nigeria.

Olabisi Deji-Folutile is Editor-in-Chief, franktalknow.com and member, Nigerian Guild of Editors. Email: bisideji@yahoo.co.uk

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