On the 27th of February, Nigeria confirmed its first case of COVID-19 when an Italian citizen in Lagos tested positive for the virus. Almost a month later, the Lagos State Government announced the closure of public and private schools as part of measures to control the pandemic. Likewise, the Federal Ministry of Education ordered all educational institutions nationwide to close on or before the 26th of March.
Before the virus had even struck Africa’s most populous country, UNICEF had calculated that 10.5 million Nigerian children aged between five and 14 years old are not in school, while only 61 percent of six to 11 year-olds regularly attend primary school. Nigeria accounts for approximately 20 percent of the total global out-of-school population. The pandemic has made things worse.
COVID-19 has reshaped education systems globally, revolutionising the use of digital and online learning. As a consequence, the pandemic has exacerbated the inequality between students who have access to basic necessities such as high-speed internet and electricity. Children in underserved communities and rural areas across Nigeria are being left behind and cut off from learning completely.
The Lagos State Ministry of Education has attempted to address this problem by publicly broadcasting lessons across TV and radio, covering eight subjects: maths, English, physics, chemistry, biology, English Literature, economics and Yoruba. The classes are held Monday to Thursdays, with call-in tutorials available on Fridays. The Commissioner for Education, Folasade Adefisayo, hopes that from there, the lessons can be recorded and circulated to as many students as possible.
But that’s a lot easier than it sounds.
Ismail Okunola, a carpenter, told me that his children are finding it difficult to stay connected. His son, Akinwande, a year 9 student, agreed, complaining that the poor supply of electricity in his Lagos neighbourhood is keeping him behind.
“Most times we don’t usually have light when the classes are going on and there are times when we may not even have light for two to three days,” Akinwande explained. "Some parents have tried sharing the videos on WhatsApp to reach students that are struggling to take part. But Akinwande’s father doesn’t have a smartphone, so that it’s much help.
According to the World Bank, about 47 percent of Nigerians do not have access to grid electricity, and those who do have access face regular power cuts. A report by the National Bureau of Statistics shows that 40 percent of people in Nigeria live in poverty, which represents around 82.9 million people. An average of four out of 10 individuals in Nigeria have real per capita expenditures below 137,430 Naira ($352) per year. The reality is that a significant number of Nigerian cannot afford wifi.
While homeschooling might be considered a viable alternative for children whose parents have the luxury of working from home and the formal education to tutor their kids, it is not the same for children who don’t. Since the schools have been shut down, there has been an increase in the number of children hawking goods in markets, doing menial work or with nothing meaningful to do at all.
“Since they are not going to school, I ask them to follow me to the market,” says Ashabi Abdullahi, who runs a tomato stall at her local market. “At least, it is better than just watching TV and playing up and down every day.”
Some charities have attempted to fill the gap. On the 13th of June, Slum2School Africa, a leading volunteer-driven development organisation announced the launch of its first virtual learning classroom directly targeting underserved students. The goal is to reach 10,000 students.
“Thousands of our kids in secondary and primary schools across slums and underserved communities weren’t learning, and many were being engaged in various abusive activities,” says Otto Orondaam, Founder of Slum2School Africa. “So we decided to build the first virtual learning classroom and studio in Nigeria, and also get digital tablets, laptops to thousands of these kids to aid virtual learning. Today 108 kids are learning with their tablets and 840 kids have over 30 community teachers connected through laptops engaging them in cluster learning, but we still have thousands of kids to reach.”
Similar initiatives have recently been launched across West Africa. In Ghana, an online study platform was created by the Ghana Education Service for all senior high schools. The platform gives students the opportunity to access all core subjects and selected electives and other learning options. However, the platform is mainly available to students who have access to internet data, smartphones, tablets and computers. Sadly, it cuts out a large number of students who do not have access to these technologies.
Stephen Senyo Tettegah, Head of Education and Leadership Development for EduSpots, an educational nonprofit in Ghana says: “Some teachers have been innovative in reaching their pupils but majority of pupils have been left behind.” According to Tettegah, measures that can be taken to help these pupils include providing support with technological learning to aid virtual learning. Also engaging with parents to plan a daily schedule couple with periodic check-ins by teachers.
When asked what government can do to bridge the digital divide that’s pushing many children out of the educational system, Henry Godwin, a TeachForNigeria Fellow explained that there should be a focus on scaling simple solutions, such as deploying learning resources to these communities.
“Learning worksheets can be made available to children who are not digitally connected and they can still continue school work through those learning worksheets which are easily understandable,” he says. “There are also low cost tech solutions that can be deployed, and also learning tabs that are solar powered with preinstalled educational videos and content.”