Schools that had been closed since 20 March reopened on 1 June, but the status and safety of thousands of teachers are still in danger.
More than 18,000 primary schools as well as secondary schools and technical and vocational training establishments have reopened amid great confusion in Niger. In an interview on 28 May, the general secretary of the Syndicat national des enseignants du Niger (National Teachers’ Union of Niger – SNEN), Issoufou Arzika Nanaïjé, expressed concern about several issues.
His first preoccupation is safety conditions: classrooms are overcrowded, with between 60 and 100 students. Social distancing is, therefore, impossible, and could not be implemented on 1 June. There is also a belief that although children are not very vulnerable to COVID-19, the viral load in packed classrooms will be high. In addition, the rainy season is coming, and more than half of the schools, especially in rural areas, are housed in straw huts.
Existing problems exacerbated for teachers
COVID-19 has exacerbated problems that were already present, added Arzika Nanaïjé. In response to staff shortages, the ministry responsible for primary education had recruited more than 2,500 contract teachers, most of whom started work in December 2019. These teachers were ordered to report to the schools to which they were assigned without any payment being made to them, forcing them to incur debts. They taught in conditions of utter impoverishment, without receiving any wages.
When the schools closed in March, these teachers had to make their own arrangements to leave the remote places to which they had been posted. The administration, which had also closed down, took no action in response to their claims, and the salaries, already in arrears for several months – more than five months in some cases – remained unpaid.
For Arzika Nanaïjé, the final injustice was when the authorities demanded that these teachers return to their posts on 25 May for the resumption of classes on 1 June 2020.
The SNEN stepped in, and the Ministry of Finance indicated that salary payments for May 2020 were coming. However, the administration has remained silent on the payments for January, February, March and April 2020.
The Ministry of Education also unilaterally extended the working time for members of staff, requiring them to work on Saturdays in addition to the normal school week from Monday to Friday. Arzika Nanaïjé strongly criticised the way in which this was done without consultation.
Teachers very concerned about early school leaving
The SNEN is also extremely concerned about the situation of the students, most of whom were unable to continue their schooling for two months because of the digital divide. Less than a quarter of students have access to some form of distance learning (usually radio or television). Teachers are also concerned about the risk of students dropping out of school.