After much confusion, schools in South Africa reopened on 8 June for Grade 7 and 12 learners. The resumption of classes even though the promises by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) to deliver water and personal protection equipment did not materialise. A teacher, who has asked to remain anonymous, shares her concerns about the lack of preparedness that places teachers and students and, by extension, their families at risk.
On 19 May 2020 came Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga’s announcement that schools would be reopening on 1 June 2020. This was despite the increasing rate of infections of COVID-19. Grade 7 and 12 learners would be the first to return. With the minister’s announcement came a number of promises, no doubt to ease the minds of parents across the country. South Africa was still on level 4 lockdown and citizens were reminded daily to “stay home and stay safe”. Why reopen schools many wondered?
While the Minister’s focus was on saving the academic year, many continued to question at what cost this could be achieved. Ms Motshekga repudiated all accusations that this was a careless and dangerous move and insisted that the DBE had measures in place to ensure the safe and swift reopening of schools.
Two months earlier, on 15 March 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the almost immediate shut down of schools from Wednesday, 18 March. Despite the fact that schools were scheduled to close on 20 March, the seeming rapid spread of COVID-19 made it too dangerous to see through the remainder of the first term by a measly two days. With hindsight, perhaps the only explanation for the rushed closing of schools was that it was a premature decision. However, the Government’s contradictory approach to the opening and closing of education facilities left many in a state of confusion and anger.
The announcement to reopen schools was met with much resistance by teachers’ unions, and school governing associations alike. Teachers’ unions actively questioned the safety of both teachers and learners, the physical readiness of schools, the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) and running water, to name but a few. How would it be possible for those schools, which have not ever had access to running water in 25 years, to safely open and offer learners the safe and clean environment that their lives now possibly depended on. In only two weeks?
In the Minister’s address, she assured the public that the preconditions for reopening schools would be met. No school would go without water, sanitisers, masks and sanitation. Teachers were to return to duty on Monday, 25 May 2020 to prepare for the return of pupils. Training on COVID-19 was to be offered and structured plans on how social distancing in class and during break times were to be drawn up.
Poor communication from the DBE
Perhaps this did something to ease the minds of concerned parents and teachers, until the Sunday morning, 31 May 2020, when Sunday newspapers ran headlines stating that schools would not open as planned. The country waited for the Minister’s address at 16h00, which was then moved to 18h00 and then became a no-show.
Principals, teachers, parents and learners were left completely in the dark, waiting for clear instructions from the Department to be issued. Eventually, at around 20h30 instructions came from the DBE that learners would start school the following week. This was due to the (expected) lack of school readiness. Due to the eleventh-hour announcement, private schools went ahead and opened their doors on Monday, 1 June 2020.
For public schools, another week passed. Following in the footsteps Tebeila Institute for Leadership, Education, Governance and Training and the African Institute for Human Rights and Constitutional Litigation, who in May sought legal aid in an urgent application to prevent the DBE from reopening schools, former Democratic Alliance leader, Musi Maimane, filed an application to the Constitutional Court to halt the reopening of schools. Both applications were dismissed.
Ms Motshekgas’s 19 May 2020 statement that she cannot promise that no one will die only fuelled more anger and despair in education circles. School management teams and educators had no choice but to go ahead and prepare for the return of Grades 7 and 12 learners. It was promised that schools would be allocated funds by the Government to assist with the sanitising of schools and the increasing expenses incurred to ensure that schools were safe for learners.
It was a major concern for unions that “no school should be left behind”, that Government should prioritise that poor schools in rural communities should not remain disadvantaged and that the necessary steps be taken to get such schools on a par with schools where funds were not an issue.
Schools have yet to receive the promised funding and safety materials
To date, the money promised from the Government has not been paid out to schools. Many schools have spent the limited funds they had on professional sanitising services, procuring masks, sanitisers, soap, paper towels, thermometers, paint to indicate social distancing and other necessary equipment to try and ensure some level of safety.
This leaves many schools in the position whereby members of staff who are paid by the School Governing Body and not the Government are without salaries. Parents are unable to pay school fees owing to lack of income during lockdown, and funds are at an all-time low. Despite promises, no reimbursement has been forthcoming yet.
Ms Motshekga’s contentious statement that global trends show that children under the age of 9 years are not at risk for COVID-19, was ill-timed when reopening schools for 13-14 year olds and 17-18 year olds. What about teachers? Education circles were up in arms about Motshekga’s lack of consideration for educators and their families. Clearly the safety of teachers was of no consequence.
Motshekga’s focus remained on “saving the academic year” and she argued that children were better off at school, where feeding schemes would start up again and children were “off the streets”. The National School Nutrition Programme has failed to resume, and Equal Education has taken the DBE to court for failing to make good on yet another promise.
An effort was made by the DBE to deliver face shields, disposable masks and liquid sanitiser to schools. This was followed by two material masks per learner for the returning grades. While this is all well and good, is it enough? As Basil Manuel, head of teachers’ union NAPTOSA noted, the concern was not just that schools were ready to receive learners on 8 June, but that the Department’s plan remains sustainable, that PPE and sanitiser is restocked, and schools receive on-going aid and support.
Further concerns as more children prepare to return to school
There are more questions. How will social distancing be maintained when more grades return to school in July? Classes have been divided and teachers not teaching Grades 7 or 12 are available to babysit, assist with sanitising and accompanying learners to the toilet (as is mandated by the DBE).
However, once theses educators are teaching, this will no longer be possible. The promised Youth COVID-19 Brigades Programme” has been a no-show in most schools. Teachers are personally taking learners’ temperatures before entering the school gates and throughout the day.
While Ms Motshekga demanded that teachers return to work, the District Office remains guarded. No one is allowed above the second floor of the building, and many employees are working from home and alternating days in at the office. Is the risk of contracting COVID-19 higher at District Office than at schools with hundreds of learners? Or are some lives just more important than others?
The new school calendar allows for a five-day break in August and a twelve-day break in September. The school year has been extended to the 15 December 2020. Is it really feasible to push learners and teachers to such an extent? It seems that the President’s decision to close schools in March has resulted in the punishment of those who have had no say in any of the events around the opening and closing of South African schools.
The success of the 2020 academic year remains to be seen, with many schools reporting cases of COVID-19 and closing their doors. The passing of some educators due to COVID-19 and the precarious position those involved in education find themselves in does not bode well.
One thing is certain, however, the reopening of schools was another clear example of our Government’s tendency to overpromise and underdeliver to the masses. What is new and why did we ever think this time around would be different?