A letter from the office of the Director-General of the Ghana Education Service (GES), Prof. Kwasi Opoku Amankwa, dated Wednesday 13th May 2020 was circulated on Social media over the weekend. The letter (Ref. GES/DG/245/20/194) seeks to solicit from the teacher unions their inputs on “strategies to adopt to ensure that we can smoothly reopen schools while ensuring the maximum security and safety of all.” A deadline of Tuesday 19th May, 2020 was given to the unions to submit their inputs to the GES.
Listening to the General Secretary of GNAT Mr. Thomas Musah on JOY NEWS (TV) today Monday 18th May 2020, I gathered that the GES letter was delivered to the unions either on Thursday 14th May or Friday 15th May 2020. Considering the fact that 16th and 17th May 2020 fell on Saturday and Sunday respectively, the unions have only today Monday 18th May 2020 to think through their “strategies” and submit their proposals.
I wish the unions were given adequate time to enable them consult more broadly with their members and to also have sufficient time to think through their strategies.
Additionally I wish the engagements were broader to include other key stakeholders such as the Ghana Medical Association (GMA), the students leadership at all levels, Parents, the Traditional Authorities and Communities in whose areas these schools are located. But it appears GES is in its usual hurry.
From my point of view as a concerned parent with wards in school, I’m concerned about the continued stay at home of our wards. But as a teacher by profession, and knowing the conditions under which our schools operate, I am equally scared about any dream of reopening schools at this point in time when the Ghana Health Service told us it is still studying the dynamics of this Coronavirus.
We are told the virus has now entered the community spread stage in our country. For me, and I believe for many parents and teachers too, the idea to even contemplate reopening schools at this community spread stage is premature. France reopened some of its schools in May and within one week, seventy students contracted the virus. The Spanish flu of 1918 was also said to have claimed 50 million lives when a lockdown was lifted without careful consideration.
So far nobody can explain why some people have severe life threatening infections while others have mild or no symptoms at all.
As a country, we have also not yet attained a quick testing regime where we can deliver quick results across the country within 24 hours when there is a suspected case and sample taken. Additionally, the temperature guns, we have learnt, have not been too helpful since many of those who have contracted the virus and spread it show no symptoms; no fever. So the temperature guns have not been able to detect the virus in those infected people. We may have many of such asymptomatic persons among students and teachers. Congregating them in schools might thus prove disastrous. Even those who get fever can bring the temperature down with paracetamol.
Thus GES may be bold, reopen our schools and be lucky to have no problems because we believe God is always a Ghanaian. However, God’s favour may temporarily depart from Ghana and we could have big regrets when we reopen schools.
My candid position on possible reopening of schools therefore, is NOT NOW. Let’s tread cautiously for if we rush we may crash and be crushed.
GES must be conscious of the potential danger ahead and convince students, teachers and the general public that verifiable adequate measures are put in place before contemplating reopening of schools.
From my experience in the GES, it has always been that we take major policy decisions before attempting to put in place compliance measures after public outcry. COVID-19 will not allow us the luxury to tread that path. GES must thus
fulfil some stringent conditions precedent that will minimize the spread of COVID-19 among students and teachers before taking a decision to reopen schools.
The following measures are worth consideration:
A. BEEFING UP INFRASTRUCTURE
1. How prepared is the GES with resources to construct more classrooms in all public schools to decongest the large class sizes? Do private school operators also have the means to expand their classroom infrastructure? Class sizes need to be reduced to a maximum of 20 to 25 if we are to reopen schools. This will ensure the appropriate social distancing protocol.
2. Can GES/MoE in the shortest time possible, build more dormitories in boarding schools to decongest the sleeping rooms of the students to conform to social distancing protocols even as they go to bed?
3. How prepared is the MoE/GES to provide more dining spaces to ensure social distancing as students take their meals? How early can this be done? When students are divided into more smaller groups as exists now for dining purposes, it might eat into teaching and learning periods.
In effect, in the SHS where overcrowding has led to a double track system, how many tracks does the Ministry envisage for schools to promote social distancing in the classrooms and dormitories? Can the GES propose a time table for the tracks it intends to bring to the schools for public scrutiny? How can the GES enforce the ban on large gatherings such as school worships, assemblies and entertainment in the schools apart from gathering in the dining halls?
4. Are resources available for extension of pipe-borne water to all schools which don’t have it to promote frequent handwashing?
For social distancing, mono desks or chairs have become imperative. How ready is MoE/GES to replace dual desks in schools that use them? Or if the dual desks must continue to be in use, how is the GES going to ensure that they are occupied by only one pupil/student to ensure the observance of social distancing protocol? How early can the GES augment the furniture status in the schools?
B. TESTING BEFORE REOPENING
6. After GES has shown evidence to the teacher unions, CHASS, COHBS, CODE and Parents of providing the above infrastructure, the next stage is testing.
How ready is the government to let all students, teachers, and non-teaching staff of both public and private schools undergo a compulsory testing before schools are allowed to reopen? Can testing centres complete testing and release results before reopening of the schools? This will help discover any infected persons, isolate and treat them so they don’t infect others.
All students and staff need to be retested every two weeks when schools are in session so that those who might be infected after previous tests, or who might be carrying the virus but tested negative in the first instance can be fished out, isolated and treated. Is the MoE/GES and GHS ready for this? How can students and teachers easily access the testing centers?
C. Personal Protective Equipment, (PPE)
8. Disposable face masks in the required quantities are required by each student, teacher and non-teaching staff to wear while in school. Reusable face masks must not be allowed since we cannot guarantee pupils/students can handle them hygienically to avoid infection and spread of the virus. These disposable face masks have to be collected and properly disposed of at the end of each day so that nobody attempts to reuse them.
The government must supply these PPEs to the management of our schools- Conference of Heads of Assisted Secondary Schools (CHASS), Conference of Heads of Basic Schools (COHBS) and Conference of Directors of Education (CODE), before contemplating the reopening of schools. Is it medically safe for students and teachers to be in face mask throughout the whole day anyway? We need medical opinion on that.
9. Is Government ready to supply Veronica buckets with liquid soap (with resources made available to school heads to replace or, and replenish them) to schools to be mounted at vantage points in the schools for proper hand washing?
10. Hand sanitizers must be supplied to each student and each staff. These must be available to each student for exclusive use and not to be shared with any other person. Can these be supplied to schools before we think about reopening?
11. Classrooms, offices, dormitories, door handles, chairs, tables, beds, mattresses, office equipment and student school bags need to be disinfected regularly, preferably every week to ensure safety. How adequately prepared are the GES and the Ghana Health Service for this?
12. To minimize possible transmission of the virus, special dedicated buses need to be assigned by Government to convey only students, teachers and non teaching staff to and from school each day. No other category of persons must be allowed to mingle with the students and teachers on these buses. Government should tell Ghanaians the arrangement put in place for transporting students and staff before we think about reopening.
E. More staff recruitment
13. More qualified teachers (not NABCO recruits) must be recruited to augment existing staff strength and ensure the decongestion of the classrooms and maintain a class size of 20 to 25 maximum. How early can the Ministry secure clearance from the Ministry of Finance, advertise for recruitment, recruit and deploy teachers and other staff?
Until this is done, we shouldn’t think of reopening.
After ALL the above measures have been guaranteed, GES needs to tell School Managers how schools that have no fence walls (and most schools don’t have) are to be protected from the public who might enter the school premises.
These measures, one may argue, appear stringent. Yes they are, but I believe they are the surest way to minimize the spread of the virus among students and teachers. Dangerous events call for stringent measures. We either take our time, get it right and do it well or regret it. As the President said, we know how to fix our economy, and by extension, our education after COVID-19. What we do not know is how to bring back to life our precious students, teachers, supporting staff and their families who might fall victim to our haphazardly planned and ill managed reopening of schools.
May I conclude by saying that this is not the time for the Education Sector Associations to work in isolation. CHASS, CODE and COHBS must work hand in hand with the Education sector unions – GNAT, NAGRAT, CCT – to verify the putting in place of the above stringent measures before they sit down with the GES to discuss reopening of our schools. The usual cajoling, or even bullying heads of school to reopen school with the promise of sending resources later by the GES, which promises are partially fulfilled, or never at all, must give way to collaborative engagement. Together, we can find solution to this problem and allow our schools to reopen in safety.
Let’s be Citizens, Not Spectstors