COVID-19 Seven lessons from the reopening of schools for senior students in basic, secondary and university to write final examinations
- On September 24, 2020
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Government has started to ease off the COVID-19 restrictions to reopen the education sector. In an address to the nation on 31st May, 2020, Mr. President announced plans to reopen schools for senior students in: 17,440 Junior High Schools (JHS) and 1,167 Senior High School (SHS) in preparation for the Basic Education Certificates Examination (BECE) and West African Secondary School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) respectively. Final year university students also returned to their campuses to write their final test.
Even though the exercise got off on a contentious start in June, 2020, two months later, I am sure parents, teachers, school administrators and students across the country are breathing a sigh of relief. University students returned to campus in mid -June 2020, and by August ending the vast majority had completed their exams without a reported COVID-19 incidence on any of the campuses. Thousands of BECE students went back to school on 29th June 2020, and are slated to write their examinations from 14 to 18th September, 2020. The WASSCE candidates resumed on 22nd June 2020, and finished writing their tests on 5th September, 2020.
It is approximated that over 1, 000,000 students, teachers and school administrators have been involved in this partial school reopening initiative for the JHS and SHS. Evidentially, it has progressed with only minor hitches. About a month after reopening started (16th July, 2020), the Director General Ghana Health Service (GHS), Dr Patrick Aboagye made this remark: “of more than 400,000 students who have gone back to school, we are recording 110 to 111 sporadic cases …. from 34 schools and so I don’t think there’s enough fear for us to rush into anything.” This successful experience has emboldened government, and rightly so, to commit to re-opening all public schools.
Seven key lessons stand out from the school re-opening for senior students to write their final examinations. These insights and experiences gained will definitely influence the scaling-up strategies to be adopted by government in any future re-opening exercise.
First, this exercise has strengthened GHS COVID-19 emergency response team’s capabilities and self-confidence. GHS is definitely more experienced in responding to and nipping in the bud COVID-19 hotspots in any of our institutions and public places. Even more importantly, the public confidence in GHS response capabilities has been boosted. Those parents who were worried and skeptical, I am sure, are now relaxed and glad that their children remain in school to complete writing their final examinations. Also, GHS and its allied (testing laboratories and COVID-19 treatment centers) expertise for the overall management of COVID-19 has improved by the implementation of this exercise. All positive cases were immediately put on treatment followed by contact tracing to test anyone who might have come into contact with those who initially tested positive. For example, in early July, 2020, Accra Girls SHS recorded the first mass school outbreak of COVID-19. There was public outcry demanding to put a stop to the re-opening exercise and some parents wanted their children to return home. However, within two weeks, GHS brought under control the outbreak at Accra Girls SHS. The response team quickly conducted 314 COVID-19 tests in the school covering students, teachers and administrators. The tests results showed 55 positive cases of which 7 were girls. These seven (7) girls were retained on campus under the supervision of GHS. They all fully recovered and resumed classes with their colleagues. Through these swift interventions GHS successfully stopped further community transmission of the COVID-19 at Accra Girls and subsequently in more than 10 other SHS
Second, the collaboration and reinforcement provided by the inter-governmental agency team to GHS were important and necessary for the effective management and curbing of outbreaks in the schools. The Ministry of Education (MOE), the Ghana Education Service (GES), security task forces (police and army) and the Ministry of Information provided complementary services to GHS Team. MOE and GES mobilized and managed the school stakeholders, i.e. the students, administrators, teachers, and the parents. They ensured that schools were re-opened and prepared to run classes. Law enforcement agencies were critical in managing the crowd especially in situation of mass outbreaks and death. It was the intervention of the police, that prevented a group of parents from breaking into Accra Girls to withdraw their children. Police presence also helped to promote compliance with the social distancing protocol of COVID-19. The Ministry of Information is responsible for explaining the policies and planned activities to the general public. It also made sure that the media understood the activities of the inter-agency team members. Together, this inter-agency approach ensured that COVID-19 prevention protocols, including social distancing were practiced by the members of the school community -students, teachers, administrators and support staff.
Third, proper preparation of the inter-agency and education sector’s stakeholders at district and regional levels was important for their effective collaboration and the successes achieved. The preparation ensured that each agency understood the roles and responsibilities of their institutions. MOE and GES were responsible for explaining to the stakeholder government’s COVID-19 prevention policies, strategies and resources available (facemask, sanitizers and veronica buckets). They made the school stakeholders aware and built their capacities to perform their roles and responsibilities. The main stakeholders were the Conference of Heads of Assisted Secondary Schools (CHASS) and Association of Principals of Technical Institute (APTI), representing teachers and administrators of schools. The MOE and GES also involved the stakeholders in developing the school re-opening policies and strategies.
Fourth, government engaged the services of a private company, Zoomlion, to sanitize the school environment of viruses and harmful insects in a timely manner. Zoomlion was especially suited for the task because of its infrastructure and human resources capacity across the country. It quickly mobilized its enormous resources and fumigated more than 18,000 schools, including the classrooms, dormitories and accommodation facilities. Working with the private sector enabled government officials to focus on other preparatory activities, including educating the stakeholders about the re-opening strategies. Zoomlion’s fumigation activities also made communities and parents of students to have confidence that government was taking the safety of their children seriously.
Fifth, government made available the consumables, systems, standard of care and safety required to keep the children properly protected against the virus whilst in school. The consumables were the face masks, sanitizers, soap and hand towels. Government, for example, distributed 2,197,853 face masks, 90,000 liters of liquid soap, 45,000 Veronica buckets and 39,944 pieces of thermometer to JHSs. Also, COVID-19 preventive guidelines were developed for the management of the schools and key among them were: reduction in class sizes to a maximum of 30 (JHS) and 25 (SHS) students, no sporting, social or entertainment, no visitor and student not allowed to go home. However as highlighted in the monitoring report, majority of the students in the schools assessed did not receive all the 3-facemask promised in the Presidential Address. Even though each school was expected to be assigned a health facility, the monitoring by SEND staff indicates that this Presidential Directive was not implemented in all schools.
Sixth, high official representation and participation in meetings with the stakeholders in the education sector helped to mobilize confidence and trust in the policies, strategies and the seriousness of government to re-open the schools. Mr. President hosted a meeting of the leadership of the stakeholders at the Jubilee House. This meeting discussed lingering concerns of the stakeholders. During this meeting, Mr. President introduced his Senior Minister as the official responsible for coordinating the distribution of all the PPE to schools. The stakeholder’s leaders raised concerns about weak preparation. They mentioned, for example, the lack of training on how to manage COVID-19 outbreaks. Some were also worried that re-opening was less than a week away but the PPEs were not yet delivered to the schools. In response, the President reassured the leadership of the stakeholder groups that government would address all their concerns. This face to face meeting with the President helped to allay the leadership’s apprehension and spurred enthusiasm among the stakeholders to start the implementation of the school re-opening initiative
The seventh and final lesson leant was the low involvement of demand side stakeholders (parent, teacher associations, students, school management committees and civil society) in the planning and execution of the re-opening exercise. This definitely contributed to the deterioration in the situations in Accra Girls and KNUST SHS. In both schools, parents and students had limited information about what to do in case of a person displaying symptoms or mass COVID-19 outbreaks. The media and students were the initial sources of the parent’s information about the COVID-19 positive cases at Accra Girls. Most parents panicked when they heard that there were positive COVID-19 cases in the school and immediately demanded to take cusody of their children. Similarly, in KNUST SHS, the students did not know how to handle a sick colleague. They were advised by their teachers to stay away from him fearing that he was a COVID-19 patient. In fact, it turned out this student had ulcer attack and his life could have been saved if a medical person had intervened immediately. These two cases illustrate that if students and parents were made aware of the reporting procedures for suspected COVID-19 and guidelines in place to management positive cases, the death at KNUST SHS and pandemonium at Accra Girls would have been prevented.
In conclusion, the re-opening of schools has involved nearly 1,000,000 students, teachers, administrators, and support staff in over 18,000 JHS and SHS educational facilities across the country. The successful execution of this partial school reopening exercise enabled most of the senior students to write their final examinations. COVID-19 has failed to cause a permanent disruption to Ghanaian students progressing to the next level of their education i.e. no student will miss a year of schooling due to COVID-19. The successful execution of this exercise will be recorded as a key watershed moment and major milestone in the battle against COVID-19 in Ghana. We the people are definitely grateful to GHS and its allies for leading us to win this battle against our invisible enemy, COVID-19.
 9th September,2020, Daily Graphic,
 22 June, Graphic Newspaper
 See Presidential address 31st May, 2020
 20th July, Daily Graphic Newspaper 2020
 17th June, Daily Graphic, Newspaper 2020
 22 June, Daily Graphic Newspaper
 14 th June, COVID-19 Presidential Address to the nation
 20th June, Daily Graphic Newspaper