In Lagos State, Nigeria, school closures exacerbated previous inequalities in the educational system, as learning from home proved problematic for less fortunate children. And inequalities continue to impact educational access as Nigeria battles a second wave of COVID-19 infections.
In response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the government of Lagos State, Nigeria, closed schools on March 23, 2020. Though there were less than 50 confirmed cases of the virus in the country at the time, officials worried schools would become coronavirus hotspots. For the next six months, until October, educational facilities would remain closed.
By mid-January, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) had confirmed over 121,000 cumulative cases of COVID-19 in Nigeria, with more than a third occurring in Lagos State. While school closures, in Lagos State and across the country, may have contributed to containing the virus, the public health benefits have come with a steep educational cost. In Lagos State, school closures exacerbated previous inequalities in the educational system, as learning from home proved problematic for less fortunate children. These impacts have continued even after the strict lockdown ended in October and are likely to appear again as the state introduces new restrictions in response to a second wave.
Educational inequality was a pre-existing condition in Nigeria
Educational inequality in Nigeria was a serious problem before the pandemic. UNICEF estimates that more than ten million Nigerian children are out of school, 60 percent of whom are girls. Many out-of-school children live in rural areas, and most are from low-income families.
In Lagos State, education is provided by public and private schools. The public schools, which are managed by the government, are free, while the more than 18,000 private schools can be categorized into high, medium, and low-fee schools. The low-fee private education sector serves many in the poorer areas of the state, since the public school system is not expansive enough to serve the state’s massive population of around 17.5 million people. Even before COVID-19, Education International found public schools to be overcrowded and under-resourced and low-fee private schools to be staffed typically by unqualified teachers and to have substandard buildings and classrooms. High-fee schools, on the other hand, according to another study, have more highly trained teachers, with smaller class sizes, and offer students better opportunities to progress onward to institutions of higher education.
School closures appear to have worsened inequalities
When the threat of COVID-19 ended in-person learning last year, schools attempted to adapt. Some moved into online learning, but many students at public schools and less expensive private struggled to access these new tools. Even as the government and some NGOs worked to provide educational programs on TV, radio, and online for learners, an irregular power supply and limited access to smart phones and other internet-connected devices among poorer households limited the effectiveness of these initiatives. Even those families with smart phones often could not afford data for online connections.
Onanuga Olatunbosun, who teaches in a public secondary school in Yaba, Lagos, and who taught online during lockdowns, highlights some of the challenges he observed with his students.
“Although classes were organized online for students, absenteeism and other challenges affected effective learning. Many of my students complained of poor internet connections in the areas where they lived.”
“Although classes were organized online for students,” he says, “absenteeism and other challenges affected effective learning. Many of my students complained of poor internet connections in the areas where they lived. There were also complaints of lack of finances to purchase data and some of the students were interrupted and distracted in the usually noisy home environment.”
After the lockdown ended, inequalities remain
Schools reopened on October 2, 2020. Since then, given the ongoing public health threat of COVID-19, schools have worked to ensure a safe learning environment for the children. But again, the more expensive private schools have more easily adapted. They are more likely to observe social distancing in the classroom and regular hand washing procedures.
Kemi Oladele is a teacher in one of the high-fee private schools in Lagos. Her school currently runs a hybrid teaching program where the children are split into two groups. “All the children learn online on Mondays,” she says, “The first group attends the school onsite on Tuesdays and Thursdays while the second group attends on Wednesdays and Friday. This arrangement helps us to maintain social distance during classes and also give more attention to each child.”
Public schools and low-fee private schools have introduced a similar “shift” system, but limited facilities and overcrowded classrooms mean that achieving the goal of social distancing remains a challenge.
“The challenge we have now is that these extra classes come at a cost, and parents are finding it difficult to pay.”
These schools are also struggling to make up for time lost during the lockdown. Public schools and low-fee private schools have put measures in place to bring the children up to speed, but many parents cannot afford the extra tutoring or after school programming on offer. Modupe Igbinoba, who oversees a small private school in Mile 12, Lagos says, “Our school has organized after-school classes for all the children, since they are far behind in lessons they should have been taught during the year. The challenge we have now is that these extra classes come at a cost, and parents are finding it difficult to pay. Most of our parents here are middle to low income earners, some rely on daily income and have been impacted by the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, while some parents have experienced pay cuts, job losses, and a loss of business.”
Finally, there is a gender component to the inequalities. More girls than boys have been pushed out of school due to the economic crisis COVID-19 caused. Many of these girls became involved in petty business activities such as hawking to earn money to help their families during lockdowns, and when classes resumed, many parents determined it was better for their daughters to continue with these activities than to go back to school. In one secondary school in the Iyana Ipaja area of Lagos, about 20 percent of the senior secondary school students have not returned to school after resumption, and most of the students in this group are girls. Many girls have also become victims of unwanted pregnancies and early marriages due to the prolonged period spent out of school.
Schools have reopened for 2021 amid a second wave of COVID-19 cases
As a second wave crashes down on Nigeria, the NCDC says COVID-19 infections are now reaching a critical level. In Lagos State alone, 45,000 cases have now been confirmed, with around 300 deaths. Schools, though, reopened in the state on Monday, January 18.
According to Folasade Adefisayo, Lagos State Commissioner for Education, the local government determined that having kids in schools would be better for public health that having them on the streets or congregating at home. Adefisayo told local media, “They go to the markets, go about hawking items, go to play with friends. Many of them are working children—house helps, mechanics, bus conductors. With all these activities, they are further exposed to the virus. Schools are a safer environment for the most vulnerable children. At least, they are away from the streets and markets.”
Within the schools, measures against COVID-19 such as the “shift” classes, hand washing, and the wearing of face masks are in place, though many are worried these steps might not be enough to curtail the spread of COVID-19 in schools.
Kemi Oladele, the teacher in one of the high-fee private schools, believes if the new term could run as planned without hitches, some of the time lost last year would be regained. It is not clear if that will be possible, but she is hopeful.
“Although the second wave of the pandemic is already here,” she says, “we desire a sense of normalcy in education, where all children can learn as they should.”
About the Author
Adejoke Adeboyejo is a freelance writer based in Lagos, Nigeria. She writes about healthcare, women and other development issues. Find out more about Adejoke at her website: theresourcewriter.com.