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Mixed reactions to schools reopening

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WHILE a tentative date has been suggested for schools to reopen, with grade 7 and 12 pupils possibly returning to their school desks next week, Kimberley parents have greeted the news with mixed responses.

The Department of Basic Education (DBE) initially suggested that schools should reopen next week, with teachers returning on May 4 and pupils two days later, on May 6.

Schools in the country have been closed since mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic. The department was supposed to host a media briefing on Monday, but this was delayed with promises to update the public later this week.

Briefing a joint meeting of parliamentary committees on Wednesday, the DBE’s director-general, Mathanzima Mweli, said the initial plan was that grades would be phased in, starting with grades 7 and 12 returning to school next Wednesday.

The other grades would start classes in staggered phases between May and July.

“The lost school days will be recovered by shortening the June holidays to five days and the September holiday to a long weekend in order to make up for these (lost) days. The fourth term will also be lengthened to close on December 9, 2021 for pupils and December 11, 2021 for teachers,” Mweli said.

Deputy Minister Reginah Mhaule said the plan was drawn up to bring pupils and teachers back to school. “We need to protect lives and the academic year,” Mhaule said.

Mhaule added, however, that questions had been raised regarding the readiness of schools to reopen next week and stated that the date for reopening had to change.

“We don’t have to risk life. We need to protect the academic year,” she said. “We should not compromise lives. Life is more important than the academic year. We understand that at the department.”

According to Mweli, there were set guidelines for the reopening of schools, including:

* Physical distancing in classes, including not more than two pupils sharing a desk.

* There is also no hugging, handshaking and direct contact allowed.

* Cloth masks would be worn by pupils and teachers at all times.

He also said that there would be sanitising prior to the start of the school day; sanitising hands on entering classrooms; limiting movement of pupils between classrooms; and no clustering of desks in classrooms.

Mweli stated that they would work with the Department of Transport to ensure that buses for pupil transport were sanitised, that hands were sanitised on entering a bus and to manage distance between pupils in a bus, among other measures.

In a newsletter issued by the South African Teachers’ Union (SAOU), the Northern Cape Department of Education had during meetings with the unions undertaken to provide hygiene packs containing liquid soap containers and dispensers, hand sanitisers, surgical gloves, wet wipes, electronic temperature gauges, biohazard bags to dispose of used items and layer face masks to all pupils. All schools will also have cleaners while the buildings will also be disinfected.

Crowded schools in the Province will get mobile classrooms.

Pupils and staff will be tested with electronic temperature meters every day before school starts, and those with a temperature above 38 degrees C will be referred to a doctor or medical facility.

It was stated further that the provincial Department of Education planned to extend the school day, taking into account that pupils using public transport will still get home at a reasonable time.

Pupils will remain in their own classrooms and teachers will rotate.

Staff with underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to being infected must report this immediately to the principal with supporting doctor’s letters so that it can be brought to the attention of the department.

Parents in Kimberley have reacted differently to the news that schools are being reopened.

“My child will go back to school in June when it is mid-winter and when the curve is expected to increase,” one mother pointed out.

“I am very worried and concerned about the safety and health of my son,” another mother stated.

“I only have one child and it feels like I am sending him out into a danger zone. The Department of Education is not prepared and has never been faced with such a challenge. If it was up to me, I would rather opt that all pupils, no matter their grade, repeat the school year. This is a situation no one foresaw or knows how it is going to turn out. If the children repeat the year, we can all still have children who are alive and healthy. I do not want to gamble with my child’s life by having a trial run,” she added.

Another questioned the ability of the department to ensure social distancing. “Poor rural schools do not have the facilities to ensure social distancing and clean spaces. This is madness on the part of the department. How do you justify two children to a desk and call it social distancing? So many people have already been arrested by the police and the army for not complying with the social distancing regulations but here it is okay to turn a blind eye.”

Another parent pointed out that during Stage 4 of the lockdown she still couldn’t cross provincial borders to visit her aged parent, but her child was expected to go to school. “I would rather sacrifice a year and let him repeat the grade than have him end up dead because of this virus. I love my child too much to send him into an environment where he is not protected.

“We need to make our voices and feelings known to the department.”

One parent stated that department officials held a virtual meeting because they were afraid of getting infected but then wanted children to go back to school in classes of more than 30 pupils.

“Even before the lockdown, some of our local schools were overcrowded and pupils had to sit on the floor because there were not enough desks for each child. Do you really think that this is the way to deal with a virus that has killed thousands of people worldwide?”

Others questioned the purpose of implementing stages in the lockdown.

“Surely children should only be sent back to the school once everyone is allowed to freely move around? Parents are being told to stay at home and indoors and you cannot go and eat at a restaurant but it is safe to send our children to school.”

A parent of two young children pointed out that she relied on her elderly parents to pick her children up from school. “We are putting our aged at risk. This has not been properly thought through at all. It is irresponsible madness.”

Another parent welcomed the return to schools. “When the lockdown is lifted on Friday, I am expected to return to work. What am I supposed to do with my children if they cannot go to school. I do not have the time to assist them with their schoolwork while teachers are paid to sit at home.”

Teachers have also expressed concern about their own safety. “What will happen to teachers who are over the age of 60 years? Will they be expected to go back to the classroom?”

One teacher appealed to the department to act conservatively and not to open schools too soon.

“We need to see what happens when the lockdown regulations are reduced to Level 4 and if the number of positive cases rise substantially. This is a learning curve for everyone and we don’t want to wake up one day to find our hospital ICUs full and not enough teachers to keep schools open in the future.”