FG, ASUU WARNS AGAINST RE-OPENING OF TERTIARY INSTITUTIONS

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The Federal Government has called for caution as some state governments announce reopening of schools, saying that COVID-19 remains potent and highly dangerous.

Mr Boss Mustapha, Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) and Chairman, Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19, gave the warning on Monday in Abuja at the 62nd joint national briefing of the taskforce.

According to Mustapha, as the nation plans to re-open more sectors, everyone must stay the course and stick with the winning strategy which is anchored on the ability of our health institutions to contain the virus.

“While citizens wear facemasks properly, stay away from crowded places, avoid mass gatherings, maintain simple hygienic practices and as much as possible protect the elderly and most vulnerable to this pandemic.

“It is in the above context that the PTF appreciates the on-going calls for re-opening of the education sector and indeed some sub-nationals are already making preparations for such.

“Whilst the PTF does not discourage making such preparations, we need to be guided by experiences from countries such as Germany, France, the United States, and the UK where the opening of schools in some cities led to an increase in confirmed cases and fatalities,” Mustapha said.

The SGF also noted that the task force would be submitting the seventh Interim Report to President Muhammadu Buhari and would be guided by his directives on the next phase.

Mustapha said that the decisions and approval would be transmitted at the national briefing on Sept. 3, 2020.

He said that as the nation entered the last few days of the extended eased lockdown phase of the Nation’s National Response this week, the PTF, like the global community, was confronted with a series of emerging new developments around the characteristics of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to him, the global number of confirmed cases has exceeded the 25 million mark and is attributable to a resurgence in countries hitherto considered to have effectively contained the virus.

“While a good number of countries that have relaxed restriction measures are actually re-introducing such, which in some cases are being made more stringent on the basis of lessons learned.

“The PTF has observed that South Africa is no longer in the top five with the global cumulative cases. It has similarly observed that Ethiopia is also rising strongly.

“The PTF will continue to monitor developments all over Africa even as we prepare to open up the international air space for flights.

“The PTF has also observed that from the point the global numbers entered the 20th million, growth in cases has been on the average of a million cases every four to five days.

“This is a trend that deserves a lot of attention and the PTF is doing that. For us in Nigeria, the last three weeks have shown a slowdown in the number of confirmed cases.

“Indeed, in the last four months of testing, the lowest daily figure of confirmed cases, 138 were reported on 30th August 2020,” he added.

He, however, called for caution and vigilance on the declining numbers because the virus was still potent and very dangerous.

Mustapha said that the position was informed by the fact that in spite of the nation’s enhanced testing capacity, the number of samples collected for testing have not been encouraging.

He said that while the government intensifies its targeted testing strategy, it still urged the states to expand the scope of their sample collection.

Also, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), on Monday, warned the Federal Government against reopening tertiary institutions without taking concrete steps to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Zones of the union said social distancing and other COVID-19 protocols were practically impossible in public tertiary institutions, which were always overcrowded in the country.

They, therefore, warned that any attempt to reopen the institutions would not only be suicidal,  but also worsen the spread of coronavirus.

Also, the National Vice –President of the union, Prof Emmanuel Osodeke, in an interview, called on the Federal Government to upgrade the education sector,  if it  wanted universities  across the country to resume.

Recall that the Minister of State for Education, Chukwuemeka Nwajiuba had, on August 22 said  tertiary institutions shut in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic in March, would reopen “very soon.”

During a Nigerian Television Authority programme, Nwajiuba said the Federal Government was also working to end the  strike embarked upon by ASUU.

But  the National Vice–President,  Osodeke, in the interview with The PUNCH, called on the Federal Government to upgrade the education sector,  if it  wanted universities  across the country to resume.

Osodeke said that if government believed that the education sector was critical, it should meet the COVID-19 guidelines which it prepared for school reopening.

He maintained that a topnotch procedure was created at airports because the elite children needed to be kept safe while returning to school abroad, whereas other  Nigerian children were asked to go back to campuses which were not  COVID-19 complaint.

Osodeke stated, “If government believes that the education sector is critical, they should try and meet those rules. They met them for the airports, you are aware. If you get to an airport before you board a  plane,  there is a procedure you will pass through because the airport is for the elite.  Their children are going back abroad for studies so the airports should be okay so that they can go back to school. Meanwhile, they want  these children to go back to schools where there are no health facilities, no good accommodation; lecture theatres are so small for the students and you want them to go and have a high rate of infection.

“We expect the parents, students and our colleagues in the media to put it to the government that they have spent so much money on COVID-19 since it started, why can’t they spend money on the education sector and upgrade the facilities so that the children can go back to school? That is what we should be talking about.”

Osodeke said that he expected government to meet the rules it set for schools but was surprised at its refusal and the sudden call for resumption.

He stated, “It is not safe to return to school. The government set the rules for schools on what should happen before schools can reopen.  Has the government met the rules? No, they have not. Do we have enough space where the students can keep social distancing? A room that is going to contain two students, we have between 10 and 20 students, will they change that?  The lecture theatres too… Do they have improved medical facilities in case of an emergency. These are not there. We expect government to meet those rules before it thinks about reopening.

Also, the Lagos Zone of ASUU, during a press conference at the Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago-Iwoye, Ogun State, said  the Federal Government should  be ready for any possible negative consequences  if it reopened the  institutions without putting necessary measures in place.

The zonal Coordinator of ASUU, Prof Olusiji Sowande, who addressed the press conference lamented that  government made arrangements for special bailout for airline operators and other private individuals, but did not extend such  to public universities.

He cautioned that it was not enough to have the students back on campuses,  but that the atmosphere and conditions must also be right.

The coordinator said hostel accommodation was inadequate, adding that there were  no facilities to ensure  physical distancing in large and crowded classes.

He  declared that  years of neglect of both education and health sectors in the country had resulted in inadequate infrastructure and lack of well-equipped diagnostic, testing, treatment and research laboratories in both sectors.

Sowande said, “The response of the public universities to the call by the National University Commission for their readiness to reopen indicates that public universities are not ready.

“Hostel accommodation is inadequate; there are no facilities  on ground to carry out physical distancing  in large and crowded classes;  water and electricity supplies are not reliable .

“Reopening tertiary institutions without taking concrete steps to address these issues will  be suicidal. While government made arrangements for special bailout  for airline operators and other private entities, no such arrangement was made for public universities.

“ Therefore, government should be ready to take responsibility for any possible negative consequences after reopening of universities.

“If government has faithfully implemented the 2012 Needs Assessment report which identified the intensity of the rot in education sector and tertiary education in particular, Nigerian public universities would have been more involved in COVID-19 testing and developing solutions through cutting edge research in well-equipped laboratories.”

Speaking on the ASUU  strike, Sowande said the union had written to relevant government agencies with a view to finding steps to put an end to the industrial action.

He said, “It seems to us that some government officials are benefiting from the prevailing situation. We demand that the OAGF (Office of the Accountant General of the Federation) must immediately remit all illegally withheld dues and other third party deductions with accrued interests.

On its part, the Abuja Zone of ASUU advised the Federal Government to strictly adhere to the guidelines of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control about COVID-19 before reopening public universities.

The Coordinator of the zone, comprising University of Abuja, Federal University of Lafia, Federal University of Technology, Minna; Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida University, Lapai and Nasarawa State University Keffi;  Prof. Theophilus Lagi, stated this at a news conference in Abuja.

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He said, “The union is not insensitive to the general clamour for the reopening of public universities in Nigeria in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic. We advise that this should happen only when the following actions have been taken by government: Government must as a matter of urgency implement the memorandum of agreement  of February 7,  2019, signed with ASUU.

“They should adhere to the NCDC protocols of safeguarding the lives of students, lecturers and workers in the universities such as provision of the means of maintain social distancing in all hostels, classrooms, lecture theaters and auditorium in all the public universities in the country.

“There should be provision of hand sanitisers, temperature taking devices, face masks, running water and soap facilities for students and staff in the universities at all times. Provision of testing centres and isolation facilities in all public universities is also necessary.”

He said the ongoing strike by ASUU was to demand the release of the revitalisation fund, payment of arrears of the Earned Academic Allowance and constitution of visitation panels to public universities, among others.

According to him, the quest for the revitalisation of the university system and the welfare of ASUU members have always been on the front burner of the union’s struggle and cannot be compromised.

Lagi said, “We have pointed out to the government to expend more funds to upgrade existing universities to the world-class standard instead of the ongoing proliferation of universities by both state and federal governments.

(CITIZEN)


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