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Ethics for educators in a time of disaster

On 23 July, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that schools would close for a second time this year. The reasons given is that children are at risk as the COVID-19 pandemic reaches its peak in South Africa. Peter Lee comments that many children are exposed to other dangers when they are not in school and calls on teachers to assume their responsibilities.

World leaders in countries are using wartime images to press upon people the urgency of COVID-19 and the appropriateness of citizens making sacrificial responses for the common good. Personal  agendas and special interests should wait a bit while we give ourselves to the national interest, the common good and the needs of others.

Healthcare workers have of course been expected to lay down their lives for their patients – to put in long hours, often at personal risk and in scary conditions; by and large, except perhaps where their employers have failed to protect them, they have done so.

Have our educators done the same?

In arguing for the closure of public schools, teachers’ representatives have argued that they are defending the wellbeing of learners, educators and others who work at schools. Does that claim have integrity?

Personal  agendas and special interests should wait a bit while we give ourselves to the national interest,.

In some places and under some conditions, they are right – a few of this country’s schools are not fit for human habitation, let alone for educational purposes. In fact this may be a God-given crisis in the biblical sense – a moment of judgement – which exposes the scandalous neglect of the past years and forces action to be taken by a whole slew of departments (education, health, water, sanitation, transport and public works for a start). Those schools must be fixed by their respective provincial departments right now, if the Bill of Rights is to have any meaning.

Children are not safer on the street

But if the argument for general closure is based on the assumption that children out of school are tucked up in middle-class suburban homes, with food, adult care and online schooling laid on, that is not just a myth but a lie.

The Minister is right when she says that schools are good for children: vast numbers of children in this country, when not in school, are at far greater risk when they are just knocking about the streets of the township, the rural village or the city centre. That includes risk of various infections as well as of violence, abuse, or being knocked down by a taxi.

The courts were stern in their recent insistence that government must meet its obligations to feed the 9 million children who daily depend on school feeding for their immediate freedom from hunger and their long-term protection from malnutrition. Now the President – regrettably evasively – says that this obligation will be met by providing meals to be collected from schools.

Really? Is a rural child going to walk several kilometres to school to fetch a sandwich sufficient to get home again? If the food needs to be cooked, who will eat it when the child returns home? The Department’s guarantees to the children seem unrealistic, given the reality.

Children have constitutionally guaranteed rights to education, health care, food and water. Delivering those at school does not make us a nanny state; it is perfectly normal in many societies. Schools have always been nodes of social service delivery.

Further in most societies, parents whose daily task is to earn a living and drive the country’s economy, take it as part of the social contract that society will provide a safe space for their children while they do so. Children out of school are losing not only the building blocks of learning which they need to grow, succeed, and become employable. They also lose physical protection, nutrition, and socialising. That is why schools are good for children. And educators are trained to ensure good outcomes for learners.

Parents whose daily task is to earn a living and drive the country’s economy, take it as part of the social contract that society will provide a safe space for their children while they do so.

This is the riposte to those who worry about infected children returning to crowded multi-generational households after school (even setting aside the technical questions about super-spreaders, who infects whom, and so on). The risk is real but it must be balanced against the risk to a child whose days are not spent in the educator-controlled environment of a school, with masking, distancing and food, but roaming the streets while his parents are out, his home is locked up, and his friends want to play rough-and-tumble on the ash-heap.

These moral considerations should weigh more heavily with educators, government and teacher unions than they have appeared to in recent decisions.

Educators have known that hundreds of schools were being vandalised during the lockdown, and that PPE is being stolen by the truckload from their schools. Where were they when they knew that the school they are appointed to serve is at risk? Not their job? But if we are at war – in a state of disaster – why do normal employment criteria overrule the need to save the nation?

Is the real reason for closing schools the wellbeing of our children, or a chance to twist the Minister’s arm still further? Is someone using the COVID-19 crisis to struggle for political advantage?

If so, shame on you. We are living in a disaster and our children are not trading chips.

Ethical responsibilities

Where might educators who want to live ethically get some ideas? Maybe the underlying moral question is whether education is still a vocation – a role we are drawn to and make sacrifices for, for the common good – rather than just a job with some benefits.

Vocation involves personal risk for the good of others.

Members of the Cabinet have donated a chunk of their pay to the Solidarity Fund; could some educators who have not taught a class since April – but have not been furloughed, short-paid or shunted off to the UIF – put some cash into fixing their schools?

While we must allow for the vulnerable, there are parts of the country where educators have insisted on preparing to open, planning for the complications, and doing everything they can to make their learners’ next few months as constructive as possible. Vocation involves personal risk for the good of others. It may mean growing a backbone and speaking up for the children when others are playing politics. And not being ashamed of pressing for the common good.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.