Will COVID-19 Donors also help stranded Nigerian Teachers?

It is no longer news that many private school teachers have been at the mercy of kind-hearted people since the Federal Government shut Nigerian schools to limit the spread of COVID-19 pandemic.  Unlike their counterparts in public schools that have continued to get paid for a job not done, private school teachers have since been deprived of their means of livelihood.  In certain cases, husbands and wives work in private schools and both have to rely on others’ benevolence to survive. The other time I was listening to a radio programme and a teacher practically broke down in tears as he bemoaned the situation he had found himself.  While many groups on social media have been trying to help these teachers, their efforts could at best be described as a drop in the ocean considering the share number of people that are currently out of job.

Just this week, a social media campaign was mounted to draw attention to the plight of teachers in private schools. This time around, some Nigerians took to the social media to solicit assistance for teachers. The message, circulated through different social media platforms read, “Please call your children’s private school teachers, get their bank details and send something to them, no amount is too small, even if it’s N1, 000. Sincerely, most of them are going through a very hard, tough and depressing time! Foodstuff too wouldn’t be a bad idea. May God bless you! ” 

Honestly, this isn’t the best of time to be a teacher, especially in a Nigerian private school. Things are generally tough and for the teachers, it’s double jeopardy.  Certainly, private school teachers in Nigeria are among the most hit by this deadly COVID-19 pandemic.  Sadly, in spite of their huge number, most governments both at the federal and state levels appear unbothered about their plights.  In Lagos alone, about 6,083 private schools were registered in 2016. So, one can imagine the number of teachers across the country without means of income. Why the government has chosen to ignore the obvious sufferings of these people is still baffling to me.

I know some people may argue that private schools are enterprises and as such, shouldn’t be on government’s funding list.  While this may be true under normal circumstances, we are in a time of emergency.  Governments across the world are taking appropriate measures to help the private sector to prevent their economies from collapsing in this season of pandemic.  Take the United Kingdom, for example, the country has offered financial support to the self-employed. It offered to pay part of employees’ wages to discourage employers from laying their workers off. Similar interventions are happening in the United States, Canada, Singapore, Ireland and a host of others in a bid to ensure the survival of the private sector. Of course, there are people who may think it is unrealistic to expect Nigeria to do what these developed countries are doing. But we don’t have to spend as much money as they are spending. We can do some of these things at our level, cutting our coat according to our cloth. After all, we cite the example of what these countries are doing whenever we embark on some projects like spending billions of naira to feed children in lockdown.

Aside from this, Nigeria has always funded private businesses. For example, the government subsidises fertiliser for farmers. This is in spite of concerns that the real poor farmers rarely benefit from such subsidy.  Are these not private businesses? In fact, the government has not forgotten these farmers in the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic. Just this July, the Minister of State for Agriculture and Rural Development, Mustapha Baba Shehuri, distributed subsidised fertilisers to people that government described as select vulnerable farmers as part of COVID-19 palliative to mitigate its impact on food security. Yet in spite of these so-called subsidies over the years, yields across most of Sub-Saharan Africa have remained stagnant unlike what is happening in the developed world.

We should all be worried about the repercussion of the ongoing neglect of private schools and their teachers on Nigeria’s education system post- COVID-19.  For teachers that may be lucky enough to retain their jobs, I doubt if they can all remain committed to teaching. Many of them are considering a change of career path already.  They think they have been abandoned in their greatest time of need. Well, can anyone blame them? The message being passed across to them now is that they don’t really matter!

Yet, it is obvious that government alone cannot handle Nigeria’s education sector without the contributions of these private schools.  As of today, Nigeria has 43 federal universities, 52 state universities and 79 private universities.  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. The figure of the private schools is likely to be higher considering that many may not be properly registered.   How is the government planning to fill the gap that may be created by the exit of some private schools and their teachers post-COVID-19?  Is the government thinking of the unemployment rate that loss of teachers’ jobs may add to the current unemployment figure in the country?

Whether we want to admit it or not, many private schools will go with this pandemic. Already, there are pictures of some classrooms that have been turned to poultry farms on social media.  As usual, people in charge of our education are not concerned about the implication of what is happening now. But, in months ahead, access to private school education may likely become more competitive with the few survivors among these schools charging higher tuition. The public school system may be further overstretched while many children may completely lose the chance of completing their education.  The United Nations Children’s Fund has said that the likelihood of vulnerable children returning to school after this crisis is slim. It says the longer vulnerable children stay away from school; the less likely they are to return. That is why it is important to safeguard the future of these children by protecting their present. 

One of the smart ways the government can safeguard the future of the Nigerian child is by working out palliatives for private school teachers. Since schools have remained shut when other sectors of the economy have been allowed to open up, I think the government should consider a bailout for private education providers. The truth is these school owners are being forced to shut down their businesses when other businesses have been allowed to operate for whatever reason. However, as earlier stated in one of my past write-ups, the fact remains that government cannot justify locking down a sector of the economy while unlocking others without showing consideration for the sector locked down.

As major stakeholders in Nigeria, there should be a special package for private school owners and teachers, different from the general stimulus package for small and medium enterprises which Vice President Yemi Osinbajo said they could also access. No reasonable school owner would like to take a loan to pay teachers for staying at home.  Only a Federal Government like Nigeria’s can justify spending N13.1bn on school meal to feed invisible children when schools are not in session. No private business can afford to indulge in such frivolity and wastage.  That is why government at all levels should do something about the non-payment of private school teachers’ salaries. Kwara State government recently said it was working towards providing grants and interest-free loans to private schools in the state to help cushion the impact of COVID-19. Other states should emulate this. The Federal Government should also work out some palliatives for these teachers, they are as important as the farmers.

However, beyond the intervention from government, individuals, corporate bodies and multinational organisations that rose in support of the federal and state governments in fighting this pandemic earlier in the year, could also do the same for our teachers to save the private school sector from imminent collapse. Donations specifically meant for the private education sector could be routed through the states. These organisations and individuals should announce their donations publicly as they did earlier. Governments should also publish the names of donors and the amount donated in line with the principle of transparency. Each state can then work with the private school associations in their domains to disburse the money to beneficiaries. This may be a good way of showing our collective commitment to supporting and developing Nigeria’s ailing education sector.

Olabisi Deji-Folutile is the editor-in-chief, Franktalknow.com and member, Nigerian Guild of Editors. Email: bisideji@yahoo.co.uk

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