A Catch -22 for Liberia’s Health and Education Authorities

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Education Stakeholders’ recent meeting with Ministry of Education officials and top officials of the National Commission on Higher Education have come up with a proposed plan of action intended to reopen schools in September amid a COVID-19 surge, according to Ministry of Health officials.

The stakeholders’ plan, however, calls for the introduction and implementation of certain measures including the washing of hands, the sanitization of common school materials after each use, the compulsory wearing of face masks and the observation of social distancing measures.

These measures, according to stakeholders, once implemented can assure the safe return of students to school and the resumption of normal school activities. However, questions abound mainly about the end effect of such measures on public schools which are generally overcrowded.

Should social distancing be strictly observed as a requirement in public schools, it would mean that many students will be left unaccommodated simply because of their sheer numbers that far exceed normal capacity. In many public schools, there are hardly adequate desks and chairs for students, and it is not uncommon to find a normal class with more than sixty students.

Currently there are a few schools which have been providing their students with instructional materials to do at home as a means of keeping them up to date with their lessons. Based on their performance in these at-home exams, they will be promoted to the next class upon the resumption of regular classes.

But again, it is just a handful of schools, mainly private institutions that are conducting such stay-at-home programs for their students. Some private institutions are even offering online tutoring for their students. But in public schools, it is just the opposite. Most public schools in fact lack adequate water and sanitation facilities as there is general lack of pipe borne water in Monrovia

In view of this the reopening of schools could prove to be a daunting challenge for education authorities. If the situation is not handled carefully, it could become explosive. This is because those students who may find themselves out of school because of the lack of adequate space to accommodate them may resort to rioting of the kind witnessed in Monrovia in recent times.

It is indeed a Catch-22 situation for education authorities. A Catch-22, according to Wikipedia, is a paradoxical situation from which an individual cannot escape because of contradictory rules or limitations. The term was first coined by Joseph Heller who used it in his 1961 novel “Catch-22”.

Here on one hand, the Ministry of Education is mulling the reopening of schools, howbeit under certain conditions recommended by Health authorities. It feels driven to order the reopening of schools, yet it fears that, given the generally poor sanitation prevalent in most public schools, the reopening of schools could lead to a spike in COVID-19 infections.

More to that, it runs the risk of provoking riots if implementation of the recommended health measures leads to a large number of students being forced out of school due to space constraints. Truth be told, those health measures to which school bound students will be forced to adhere, i.e constant hand-washing, social distancing and the wearing of face masks, are hardly being observed by the general public.

It is if Liberians are living in a state of denial that the COVID-19 does not exist. And this makes it all the more dangerous. However, in the face of this situation, questions are being asked, and rightly so, why has the COVID-19 not ravished communities like West Point, Soniwhein, New Kru Town, etc., where social distancing and the wearing of face masks are more of the exception rather than the rule.

Because answers to this question are hard to come by, it remains to be seen how enforceability of the recommended measures is going to work or what the backlash may be. From the look of things, nearly every death — even of those with preexisting illnesses — are being recorded as COVID-19 fatalities, whereas in truth, they are not. It is on record that even deceased individuals were being tested for the presence of the COVID-19.

Informed sources have told the Daily Observer that this is because the declaration of high infection rates is likely to attract increased donor funding, for which this government appears in desperate need.

And, although recommended health measures, particularly the wearing of face masks, appear to be conveniently ignored by the public which is not being impacted as severely as in other countries in Europe, Asia and the Americas by the COVID-19, health and education authorities may find themselves hard-pressed to deal with the likelihood of having thousands of public school students barred from attending classes simply owing to the lack of space to accommodate them as per social distancing regulations.

Dr. Linda Birch. President of the Liberia Medical and Dental Association (LMDA) has suggested that the HEIs and the NCHE Secretariat should collaborate with the National Public Health Institute of Liberia (NPHIL) and the Ministry of Health (MOH) for inspections of their various campuses before resuming regular academic sessions.

She has further emphasized the need for thermometers to be used at the entrances of all Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) for testing temperatures of students, staffs, and others regularly.

She has also stressed that social distancing be enforced and sharing of devices with other objects handled must be observed by being constantly sanitized and decontaminated. But, given the generally poor water and sanitation conditions prevalent in most public schools, and the chronic lack of critical school supplies, there are doubts whether this is achievable.

Just what to be done in the face of such uncertainty has now become the universal question. It is indeed a CATCH-22 for health and education authorities.

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