OPINION: Covid-19, children’s right to education and our collective safety

President Akufo-Addo, has been vindicated in many decisions on the pandemic and hopefully, his decision to reopen schools, will also fit that bill.

A couple of weeks ago when schools were re-opened, many parents lamented over the increased fees to the dismay of the association of private school operators. Inherent in their rebuttal was a sense of ‘we and them’ that is ‘foreign’ to education provision in recent history. But let me return to that later. Many businesses have complained about Covid stress, which has taken a toll on turnovers and in some cases led to redundancies. This suggests that some parent have either lost their livelihoods or that their cash flows have taken hits due to the general economic slowdown.

Other parents were also genuinely concerned about sending their children to school, knowing that the care that is available to them at home could be compromised in a school environment. But many obliged the call to return to school and if you live in the capital city, the traffic situation in the last couple of weeks is evidence enough of the times we find ourselves in. Schools are back and are in full swing.

However, the early days’ reports over Covid protocols, as the media has shown over the years, will fade, if it hasn’t already left the news cycle. It means that it is now a collective responsibility to ensure that children stay safe on their way to school, in school and on their way home, before parents assume responsibility.

It is impressive to be around private basic schools, some of which have medical personnel dressed in uniform in the morning with thermometer guns, taking temperatures of both children and their accompanying adults. Even if for nothing at all, it demonstrates a resolve by these institutions to give parents the impression that their children’s health and wellbeing during this period is essential to them.

These optics must be backed by deliberate action that prevents children from being exposed to any form of infections at this crucial moment. A famous Middle Eastern pediatrician insists, “infections are byproducts of the education environment and that is what makes clear the fact that children are encountering other children”. One is not sure whether his assumption will be entertained by parents, who though skeptical about taking their children to school, eventually gave in, only for the children to return home with running noses, coughs and sneezes.

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In some cases, educational institutions for children insist that clothes and shoes brought from home are shelved for new sets of apparel to be worn to break or reduce the effects of any infections contracted enroute to school to protect other children. Even in such cases, children have picked up infections, prompting parents to take measures for their children’s safety.

The above listed measures are taking place in private schools, where pupils’ numbers are usually manageable and parents seem intrusive in their children’s daily affairs. The question is what is the equivalent in the public basic schools? Following weeks of updates on the situation in public basic schools as well as the ‘My First Day at School’ with the pomp and blitz that usually attends it, there is the day-to-day running of schools, which is serious business of kids coming to school because a hot (mal)nourished meal would be served and it’s the source of energy for the day.

In these schools, who is checking the temperatures of the hundreds of children and what is the information used for? It will be crucial for the thermometer guns to replace the proverbial rod and be given to cane-happy teachers to exercise their muscles in a positive affair of safeguarding not just the children but also the entire school community.

The observation that prompted this epistle is the number of school children one encounters after school, either on their compounds or on their way home. They are often engaged in chats with their masks either hanging below their chin or completely removed. I dare say that because a lot is still being learnt about the disease in our part of the world, riding on the initial perception that children are somewhat immune to the condition and therefore allowing them to run wild could turn sour for us all. As reported in the media this week, eight (8) percent of all Covid-19 cases diagnosed in the Upper West region are of children below age nine. Last week, there was also the story of an eleven-month old baby perishing due to the pandemic, at Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital in Kumasi, where twenty percent (20) of the twenty-five children infected have died. This is the starkest evidence of how deadly Covid-19 is even among kids.

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My first reaction before engaging some children was what have parents been telling their children after giving them the masks? Do the children understand the implications of taking off the masks and engaging in intense conversations in close proximities? I do not get that sense from my observations. One also has high expectation of teachers due to their role in knowledge acquisition by our children. The school community bears a huge responsibility of ensuring that children of all ages fully understand why their masks must remain firmly worn throughout the day.

Many expected the President to impose restriction on funerals, parties and weddings etc. and he did it to the applause. However, in the case of institutions of learning, a single diagnosis of Covid-19 infection could be fatal if the pupils and students continue to behave in a manner not in keeping with the exigencies of the moment we are in. Therefore, there is the need to take the Covid protocols a notch higher and enforce them among even children, if we are to save them from infections. Daily temperature checks must be mandatory in even the remotest education institutions. Children with signs of any infections must stay at home until it can be completely proven that they have not contracted the virus. Head teachers and proprietors must be encouraged to demand enforcement of these measures to safeguard all other children. 

Another development in this space requiring urgent action is the public transport sector. It is understandable that people earn from their toil however, in times of crisis, sacrifices are made. Reports that the Ghana Private Road Transport Union (GPRTU) had refused suggestions to limit the number of persons onboard their vehicles due to returns on their investment must be given a serious attention. One could easily recommend that they bear the cost of reducing passenger numbers but right before their eyes other groups have been offered reliefs that they probably did not benefit from, therefore it would be critical that government intervenes and works with them over practical measures to reduce passengers as part of efforts to break the spread of the virus.

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Mind you, many teachers and pupils are transported through this medium; therefore, it can easily become a super-spreader of the deadly virus. The number of our population dependent on public transport justifies the need for leadership on this matter to ensure that we safeguard our population, especially innocent children in schools.

Now to the private school operators’ association, (The CODPPTS). The Parent-Teacher Associations have proven to be a useful model that various interest groups could adopt for mutual support and benefit. Therefore, to compare their relationship with parent as those of hoteliers or restaurateurs ad their walk in clients, is preposterous. For a group in education delivery to suggest that it must not consult parents before fixing fees and proceed to compare it with say a courtesan’s relationship with a hotel, is a rock-bottom low. It is understandable that long closure of schools has affected cash flows and thrown many plans out of gear. But that will not justify bellicose pronouncements in the media. After all, parents are the ones expected to pay fees and sometimes contribute to various initiatives aimed at improving teaching and learning therefore, it would have been appropriate for the association to just apologise to parents and justify their increases with evidence, rather than the approach adopted.

Let’s all get involved to ensure that as children stay in school, they can be protected from the dreaded coronavirus that continues to ravage humanity. Earlier assumptions that Covid-19 does not affect children have been disproved with children getting infected and dying. We are far from getting our share of the vaccines, currently in short supply even in countries with cash in hand therefore, our best approach is to stay protected from infections as much as possible.

Let those with ears listen!

By Kobby Gomez-Mensah, Media Practitioner

This opinion piece does not reflect the views of Media General