As online learning fees pit parents against schools

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If education is expensive, one is often told to try ignorance. However, the various fees charged by private schools in Nigeria to provide online classes seem to have left parents between a rock and a hard place amid the COVID-19 pandemic, writes Head, Education Desk, IYABO LAWAL

Easily excited Folorunsho runs up and down the street with no cares in the world. Often bleary-eyed, he stirs the dust beneath his feet as he treads the path fleet-footed. He does so from dawn to dusk when his parents return home from work. His younger sister spends more time peeping into their neighbour’s apartment, through the window. She stays there as long as her object of interest is in action.

Daniella has two siblings. She has been enjoying online learning via WhatsApp voice notes, chats, PowerPoint slides, and sometimes Zoom video conferencing with her teachers. So do her siblings too. They started the online class in May when it was obvious there is no end in sight to the closure of all schools in Nigeria, both public and private.

It was an exciting mode of learning for Daniella and her younger brothers. Each morning, they wake up excited starry-eyed, eager to learn more.
However, many Nigerian parents are not as eager as these little children. They are groaning under the weight of the burden heaped on them by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some are grappling with job loss; pay cut, furlough among others. They are also faced with the need to salvage the future of their school-aged children.

After a lull, private schools suddenly woke and are urging parents to enrol their kids in online learning. But the parents are shouting blue murder. Lagos State Commissioner for education, Mrs. Folashade Adefisayo, gave an insight into the looming crisis. 

She said, “There are between 18,000 and 24,000 private schools in Lagos. The schools that are able to do online learning are less than 150. There was a day I had a thousand messages on my WhatsApp. My phone nearly crashed. Parents from small and low-cost schools were bitterly complaining.

“It is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Talk to your parents. If you think in your school you are comfortable with it, negotiate with them. Let everybody negotiate and get to a win-win situation that suits them all.”

The negotiation has to do with how much a pupil should pay to benefit from online learning. Schools set various fees but the parents are kicking. Ignorance is bliss. It can also be expensive. The arguments are varied as they are perplexing and border on paradoxes all wrought by the COVID-19 disruptions. 

Enrolling a child in Nigerian private schools does not come cheap; a big school or small school. Rich and poor folks alike are disenchanted with public schools; so, they go for any schools that bear ‘private.’One of the most expensive private schools in Nigeria, Atlantic Hall, once charged a monthly fee of N195, 000 per pupil for virtual classes. (It was later reduced to N175, 000 after parents huffed and puffed.)

Another private school, Mind Builders School, charges N10, 000 for primary school and N20, 000 for secondary school classes. According to reports, Corona School charges N30, 000 for nursery classes, N50, 000 for primary school children, and N65, 000 for secondary school pupils.

Some schools ask parents to cough up between N25, 000 and N80, 000. Apparently, schools with higher tuition prior to COVID-19 charge more to activate online classes.

A school in downtown Ojota, Cross & Crescent, which uses a combination of WhatsApp, WPS documents, and Zoom video conferencing tool, charges N5,000 (for its Basic 5 pupils)per month for online classes for a couple of hours, Monday to Thursday.

“It’s a win-win. However, it comes at a cost for everyone,” said a parent who did not want to be named.
“Consider this: you need data to connect to the online class. You also need a smartphone; perhaps, an extra one. You need power. Public power is erratic. So, you have to fuel your generator for at least three hours each day.”

She added, “Besides, you need somebody to be on hand to be with your child if you always have to be away from home. The school/teachers too face a similar challenge of power and internet data. Something has to give.”

Many parents, especially those whose children attend schools they had not conducted their second-term exams, wonder why they should pay for a term that had already been paid for. For others, the argument is how much can a child learn in limited hours over constrained platforms and circumstances.

On April 2, Nigeria’s Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, had said, “We cannot be held down by COVID-19. We have to deploy all e-platforms to keep our universities, polytechnics, colleges of education, and other schools open.​

The minister’s statement has since been considered “effusive and excessive.”The Nigerian government touted keeping schoolchildren “in class” via TV and radio educational programmes but constant power outage in their area has not allowed Folorunsho and his sister to benefit from that.

Besides, such an initiative is a far cry from the personalised and tailored tutorial that Daniella and her siblings enjoy. Parents are apparently between a rock and a hard place: either they cough up the required online learning fee and add-on (expenses they incur at home to get the class running smoothly) or just hope against hope.

For private schools, many of them already notorious for poor teachers’ pay, irregular payment of salaries, it might be time to pack up, reinvent themselves, or pray for a miracle.

According to a 2019 report of the National Bureau of Statistics, 40.1 per cent of the population in Nigeria is classified as poor and a United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) report disclosed that 10.5 million of the country’s children aged between five and 14 are not in school as only 61 per cent of six to 11-year-olds regularly attend primary school. 

Adamu said his desire was to get students fully engaged and disclosed at the meeting that his ministry was “already speaking” with the World Bank and UNICEF on how to create platforms for virtual learning classrooms.​

“We need to take advantage of technology like the case in other parts of the world. We cannot shut down all schools when we have other means to teach our students,” he pointed out.​

Well-intentioned as those words of the minister might have come off, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has suggested that Adamu is ignorant of what online teaching entails; that’s one. More disturbing is ASUU’s claim that Adamu is lying through his teeth and that there is a potential scam in the making.​

School closures impact not only students, teachers, and families, but have far-reaching economic and societal consequences. School closures in response to COVID-19 have shed light on various social and economic issues, including student debt, digital learning, food insecurity, and homelessness, as well as access to childcare, health care, housing, internet, and disability services.​

The adverse impacts of school closures are difficult to overstate and many of them extend beyond the education sector.One is interrupted learning: The disadvantages are disproportionate for underprivileged learners who tend to have fewer educational opportunities outside school. Another is nutrition: Many children and youth rely on free or discounted school meals for healthy nutrition. When schools close, nutrition is compromised.

Then, there is the issue of protection: Schools provide safety for many children and youth and when they close, young people are more vulnerable and at risk. Parents unprepared for distance and home-schooling: When schools close, parents are often asked to facilitate the children’s learning at home and can struggle to perform this task. This is especially true for parents with limited education and resources.

Another challenge is unequal access to digital learning portals: Lack of access to technology or good internet connectivity is an obstacle to continued learning, especially for students from disadvantaged families.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) also mentioned gaps in childcare, noting that in the absence of alternative options, working parents often leave children alone when schools close and this can lead to risky behaviors, including increased peer pressure and substance abuse.

Another issue highlighted is the high economic costs. Working parents are more likely to miss work to take care of their children when schools close. This results in wage loss and decreased productivity. In addition, there is a rise in dropout rates. It is a challenge to ensure children and youth return and stay in school when schools reopen, especially after protracted closures.

The UN agency also stated that schools are hubs of social activity and human interaction. When schools close, many children and youth miss out on social contact that is essential to learning and development.

The number of children, youth, and adults not attending schools or universities because of COVID-19 is soaring. Governments all around the world have closed educational institutions in an attempt to contain the global pandemic.

According to UNESCO monitoring, over 130 countries have implemented nationwide closures, impacting over 80 per cent of the world’s student population.
Several other countries have implemented localised school closures and, should these closures become nationwide, millions of additional learners will experience education disruption.

No government will take the decision to shut down its schools lightly. But when considering school closure as a strategy to tackle disease outbreaks, the evidence suggests that they should carefully assess how and when to close schools and to weigh any reduction in disease transmission against negative social and economic effects. 

Perhaps even more important, particularly in developing countries, is to consider how to tackle these adverse consequences—during and after school closure—for disadvantaged children and especially girls, and to implement measures to ensure children return to school once they reopen.

The United Nations had warned of the unparalleled scale and speed of the educational disruption being caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Currently, school closures in over a dozen countries due to the COVID-19 outbreak have disrupted the education of at least 290.5 million students worldwide, according to UNESCO.

“We are working with countries to assure the continuity of learning for all, especially disadvantaged children and youth who tend to be the hardest hit by school closures,” UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said in a statement 

“While temporary school closures as a result of health and other crises are not new, unfortunately, the global scale and speed of the current educational disruption are unparalleled and, if prolonged, could threaten the right to education.”

In the light of the education crisis occasioned by the coronavirus pandemic, UNESCO shared 10 recommendations that private schools in Nigeria can benefit from. Until then, parents and schools will look at each other in the eye and make peace in the name of schoolchildren.

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