Hard times as private school owners, teachers groan under COVID-19 ‘vacation’

With the shutdown of schools in late March, 2020 following the incursion of COVID-19 into the country, school owners, teaching and non-teaching staff, as well as allied stakeholders have been without revenue or income, a situation that has led to starvation, hypertension and even death for some.

 

Hard times as private school owners, teachers groan under COVID-19 ‘vacation’

 

Imagine coming home to meet one of your more dedicated teaching staff, waiting patiently at your gate with her three children, a hungry and pitiable sight?

That was the sight that greeted Alhaji Nureni Olusegun Adebayo, co-founder, co-proprietor, Hybrid Nursery and Primary School and College, Ejigbo, Lagos.

That day, Adebayo said, he nearly wept and had to part with half of the foodstuff he had gone to purchase and also raised N500 cash to give to her. “A friend had given me N6,000 on that day and I immediately proceeded to buy some food supplies for the house. But on seeing them, I had no option?”

On another occasion, Adebayo said another friend had just given him N5,000 cash and on getting home, he met another teacher waiting at his gate. “I had to give him N2,000. Just as he left, a neighbour came with her husband and child, lamenting how they had not had anything to eat for nearly two days. At the end of that day, I was left with just N500. The saving grace for me and my family was that we still had some foodstuff. What most of them didn’t know was that even I had to be calling friends and relatives for assistance. Those who could, assisted; and those who felt I was too big to be assisted, looked away.”

No hard feelings, he reflected; but one expression he suddenly found to be popular among people was: “Seen your message; I will revert.” But they never reverted.

Asked how it is that he, a school owner could be reduced to seeking friends’ assistance in such a short while, Adebayo said, “Covid-19, for us, is double tragedy. First, many parents had not finished paying their children’s school fees when the government announced the immediate closure of schools. Don’t forget, schools were asked to stop operating towards the end of March, a bit before the lockdown was finally declared in Lagos and Abuja. So being a school located in a lower-middle class area, we had to be considerate and patient, hoping that they’d pay before the exams. So, those who had not paid, couldn’t pay and don’t see any reason why they should pay. Mind you, we’re talking of second term, for which we had literally finished the exams and preparing results. We had just about 17 days to vacating.”

As a result, he said Hybrid Schools has not been able to pay its staff for five whole months. “And I keep wondering how they are surviving, with family. School business is not the kind of business where you have some huge money stacked in a bank. Whatever we make, we use to pay salaries and the rest to take care of running expenses and fix whatever needs fixing. As I speak, we have about N3.7million unpaid school fees. If we had that, we would probably have been able to take care of March salary and perhaps April and May.”

The good thing according to him is that the school operates a kind of open-door policy, whereby teachers are well aware of what comes in, how many students have paid and if the school management is deliberately holding back their pay, Adebayo reasoned.

Adebayo’s partner, Usman Hussein, echoed his thoughts when he said, “It has not been easy at all – both for proprietors, teachers and related stakeholders. As we speak, we all have gone without salaries/income for five whole months! And like you know, this is not a high salary job.

About the teachers, Hussein said, “Look, you just touched a very sore point. In fact, we’ve been thinking: if only we could access soft loan to give these people, so they could take care of themselves and family. More disturbing is the online option, which we have also tried. We even told parents to pay a weekly stipend of N500 to help teachers prepare lessons and post to their kids, yet they have not been forthcoming. How do you tell teachers to prepare lessons, mark assignments and then tell them at the end of the day that there is no money to pay them? So we have that challenge. Some parents don’t even want to hear anything that has to do with them bringing out money at all -because they don’t have it!”

Aside feeding, which is basic, Hussein said a bigger problem for some of the teachers is the accommodation rent and landlord palaver. “Some of them say their landlords are disturbing them, which is more worrisome. How does a person who is struggling to feed even think of rent?”

 

Perilous time

According to Emmanuel Orji, President, Association for Formidable Educational Development (EFAD) and founder/proprietor of Rockford Schools, Ikorodu, what the educational sector is going through is unprecedented in the life of school owners.

“This is one of the most perilous times in the history of mankind and especially in the school business. Nobody saw this coming and it has left a whole lot of sore on our body. I tell you, we have lost members – not necessarily to Covic-19, but to high blood pressure and related illnesses. Imagine teachers, whose salaries are not more than N15,000 stipends, having to stay at home earning nothing for this long. This whole closure started in March and what this means is that some school owners may not have been able to pay salaries from March till date because they haven’t been able to collect school fees.”

As an employer who has no other business, Orji said he hasn’t fared better. Aside not been able to pay his teachers, he has also been dealing with his financial issues.

“Even I am finding it difficult to feed; so what becomes of my teachers? Initially, I was able to buy things from neighbours on credit because I run a school and they considered me credible. However, they soon began to poke and hound me for their money, especially as the ‘holiday’ extended from weeks to months upon months. But where am I going to get money from? As AFED president, I receive reports of our members who are finding it hard to feed. So, it’s been a very difficult time for us.”

He has also had teachers beseeching him for help; even those who are not his direct staff but who recognise him as president of EFAD.

“I have had cause to walk on the street and be accosted by teachers who know me for my position in AFED, not even my own teachers; and I have had to go to foodstuff sellers to intervene that ‘Please give him two cups of rice, give them two cups of beans, I will pay later.’ And I’ve also lost members. Last week, we lost about three members. They died due to the pressure to survive. Some people cannot afford to look at their children, while they cry of hunger.”

Literally echoing most proprietors spoken to, Orji said the examination time is usually the best time to collect school fees, as a good number of school owners usually wait to catch in on the desperation of pupils to write examinations to collect their fees, and then the closure was announced.

“Understandably,” Orji said, “the parents decided to keep their money to attend to the more immediate need of feeding.”

 

Same of same

The story, though slightly different, remains the same with Tana Kiddies Academy, Mowe, Ogun State. For some reasons, its founder, Austin Agbaje said he was able to pay up to March and even gave food items as palliatives to members of staff up till May before things dried up.

“With the little cash we had, we paid March salary and also made part payment for April. We were also able to give food items to our teachers up till May. We stopped salary in May because the closure was dragging and we did not know when it would end, but the palliatives continued until May.”

Asked how his staff have been coping with hunger and health challenges, Agbaje said, “The good thing is that we organised HMO to cover health issues for our staff and that has been taking care of their health challenges. We are in agreement with a hospital and things have been going smoothly. Some also suggested study centre ideas for their respective areas, which pupils in the vicinity have latched onto. That has enabled some of the teachers to earn something, however little.”

 

Private lessons to the rescue

A large number of teachers spoken to could not even explain how they have survived. But they have survived anyway, despite the uncertainties of the times, their gaunt, ragged look, irrespective.

Like Agbaje’s teachers, several other teachers have resorted to rendering home/private services to pupils. Though most, like Isreal Oyibo of Hybrid Schools say the revenue is not enough, he is nevertheless grateful as it has helped him keep body and soul together.

According to Oyibo, the last salary he earned was March and if not for the little stipends he is able to make via these private lessons, he really cannot tell if he would have survived.

“I teach Mathematics and Physics, so I provide online lessons for pupils, for which their parents pay. The snag however is that parents have refused to pay the usual charges. Ordinarily, we charge between N25,000 and N30,000 but because it’s not physical teaching where we go to their homes, they are only paying half that price. Currently, I have two families on my clientele, so I make just about N30,000, which is still not enough, but it’s far better than nothing.”

Oyibo however considers himself privileged because of the kind of subjects he teaches. According to him, things have not been so rosy for his colleagues teaching other subjects that parents consider less vital.

“There are a lot of my colleagues for whom it has been hell; you know, when your areas of specialty are subjects for which parents feel they really don’t need your help or that they feel their wards could read on their own, it may not be so easy. So I have had to support some friends even with the little I make.”

He admits that he also gets broke but on such occasions, he resorts to friends and relatives for whom he has been helpful in the past.

Akpan John who lives and teaches at a private school in Egbe, Ikotun area of Lagos also spoke of the hard times that have befalling him and his colleagues. Thankfully, he has also been making some stipends courtesy private tutoring of pupils who are preparing for the common entrance examinations into the various federal unity schools and state model colleges. According to him, parents are apprehensive that their wards’ memory could relapse if they were left without any brushing for so long.

He also lamented that the money is not enough, and the fact that some parents still default in payment’, but agreed that it is better than nothing.

 

 

Rent headache

Aside teachers who are being hounded over rent by their landlords, even schools – those operating on rented apartments are threatened. Some, like Tana Kiddies Academy, Mowe, Ogun State, are already feeling the pressure, while schools like Adebayo and Hussein’s Hybrid Schools and several others are unsure of their fate – because the landlords have not started serving then reminders.

 

According to Adebayo, the situation is so bad that some schools, especially those that have been operating on rented property, have had to close down – because the landlord wouldn’t be patient.

Austin Agbaje, proprietor of Tana Kiddies would underline the challenge more, when he said, “My greatest headache as we speak is rent. We operate on a rented apartment and by next month, I need to pay rent on the property. I have tried to negotiate with the landlord but you know how it is with Nigerian landlords. It doesn’t seem to matter to them that we have only operated for three out of the 12 months in the year.”

Regarding bank loans, Adebayo said, most schools on loan to banks have the Federal Government to thank for intervening on their behalf. “We are grateful to the federal government who intervened on our behalf with the banks to give us moratorium till September; else they would have been on our backs.

 

Fumigation

Orji also said the Association for Educational Development (AFED) is keeping tabs on the idea of loans for MSE and that the body has written to the office of the Vice President in this regard.

“We believe the essence of government is to help the people, so we’re hoping that they would be able to listen to our yearning,” Orji said.

To further encourage a quick reopening of the schools, especially for pupils in the final examination classes of Primary 6, JSS3 and SS3, Orji said AFED has taken steps such as fumigating member school premises and members with boarding facilities are even ready to quarantine pupils for the mandatory two weeks before commencement of exams.

He said, “AFED has also been able to get international bodies from Poland and Holland to support us to produce masks for children. The body has also been able to produce automatic hand-washing buckets, which you just place your hand under and water comes out.”

 

Government and promises

When asked about the outcome of discussions with the government, Adebayo of Hybrid College, Ejigbo said, the Association of Private School Owners has intervened by reaching out to the government to get some palliatives for teachers. He however regretted that the feedback have been a little conflicting.

“First, they said the federal government would assist in offsetting teachers’ salaries from March to June; but later the Minister of State for Education debunked it as a rumour, saying the economy was in  a bad shape and there was no way the government could afford to shoulder such huge responsibility. Later, we heard that based on a meeting with the Vice President, the government was planning soft loans for Small and Medium Scale establishments, which could help teachers cope with the challenges of the pandemic. So, we’re still waiting.” He said.

Usman Hussein on his part believes that aside soft loans or palliatives – if they ever come; government should allow schools that are ready and able to put in place all safety requirements to operate. Although not a doctor, he does not see the government flattening the curve of the virus spread anytime soon. He suggested for instance that schools can reduce class strength to 15 instead of 25 to achieve social distancing in classes.

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About the Author: Dele Oshodi

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