By Norman Cloete, Samkelo Mtshali and Sameer Naik
UNIONS have slammed the government for its decision to have teachers return to school early. This comes after Deputy Minister Reginah Mhaule said their decision was taken after consultation with education stakeholders who were all “united”.
Mhaule said school management teams (SMTs) would report for duty on January 25, teachers on February 1 and pupils on February 15. Private schools that have already reopened would need to postpone their reopening to the new date.
But teachers’ union Naptosa said the decision that teachers will return to school three weeks before pupils “lacks basic logic” and it’s executive director, Basil Manuel, said the union is seeking “urgent clarity”.
“Firstly, we were consulted and we had agreed as unions that we support the idea of the delay in the opening of schools but we were caught completely off guard by their decision to bring school teachers back three whole weeks earlier,” said Manuel.
“The decision doesn’t make sense to me, and I don’t know where it comes from. It certainly wasn’t part of the consultation we had.
“Teachers live in communities where the infection rate is so high, and when Professor Karim made a statement recently, he spoke about teachers taking the virus into schools. Now we are saying that teachers must continue to go in during the peak of the virus. So for me, honestly, that part didn’t make any sense. We have a meeting that was promised to us, so we will be following this up.”
Manuel said there was no reason for teachers to return weeks before pupils.
“We can’t see what the teachers will be doing in that time,” said Manuel.
“Can you imagine our teachers having to go in three weeks earlier to prepare. Prepare for what?” Manuel asked.
The South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) said they too are unhappy with the call for educators and SMTs to report for duty on January 25.
“The unions were not consulted. We wonder what informed this decision because teachers are as vulnerable to the pandemic as the learners. This shows the Department of Basic Education has no regard for the lives of the workers who are the ones who are infected and overwhelming the hospitals,” said Sadtu’s general secretary, Mugwena Maluleke.
“The National Coronavirus Command Council’s decision was aimed at helping the health system to cope with the crisis our country is facing.
“The Department of Basic Education (DBE) is spitting on this well-intended goal to save lives because it is obsessed with mechanical management rather that look at science and evidence that hospitals are not able to admit patients and anyone above 58 years is at risk of not receiving oxygen or ventilators because doctors are forced to ration these life-saving equipment.”
Maluleke says the decision to bring teachers back early is unacceptable.
“The decision to delay the opening of schools is based on the advice of scientists and the World Health Organization (WHO) that it would be better to delay the reopening of schools as the increase of the pandemic is unprecedented.”
Sadtu says they will be raising the matter with the department urgently at meetings scheduled for next week to check the state of readiness.
Meanwhile, parents have questioned the need to pay school fees for January.
On the #schoolsreopening hashtag on Twitter, Phineas Thabane asked: “We are going to pay school fees for January?”
Yolanda tweeted: “Do you know the pain of paying for school fees while the child is at home.”
Another tweet by Yoli read: “So, who’s going to pay me for staying with my kids until February 15,” while Magaret tweeted, “The sad part is that the people taking these decisions – their children are attending private schools, so they are not affected by this at all.”
Independent Schools’ Association of Southern Africa (Isasa) executive director, Lebogang Montjane, said schools would remain open, but would be using remote platforms.
But Ebrahim Ansur, secretary-general of Naisa, said it has advised its member associations, including Isasa, that they should comply with the request to delay opening schools until February 15. Naisa was part of the stakeholder group that was consulted by the DBE prior to the announcement.
“The independent school sector was cognisant of the imperative to do what was necessary to reduce the rate of infection and the high mortality rate because of the surge in Covid cases. Naisa has advised its member associations that they should comply with the request to delay opening schools.
“We have also urged schools that have already opened to restrict numbers of learners at school if they have arranged any induction and registration programmes, and to finalise these by January 20 after which they should close and reopen on February 15.”
“But schools that have the facilities for online teaching are free to offer these programmes with immediate effect.”
Professor Labby Ramrathan from the School of Education at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal (UKZN) said that the two-week delay to the start of the school year would not make a material difference but that there was still a lot of uncertainty for learners, parents and teachers. And depending on how the pandemic continues, the opening of schools could be delayed again.
“Learners will anticipate a lot of the protocols which they experienced last year and nothing substantive in the way of teaching happens in the first week. Kids can also adapt very quickly to different ways of teaching and learning, but we need to develop a culture of self-learning and self motivation,” said Ramrathan.
In a combined statement, education specialists at UCT, Patti Silbert and Janis Wylie, said: “Children of all ages are not used to social distancing, and in many schools it has been extremely challenging to ensure that effective social-distancing measures are adhered to.
All this has placed huge strain on the schooling system, but more importantly it exposes children, their families and teachers to increased risk of community infections. In light of these challenges, we support the announcement that the opening of schools should be postponed for two weeks. However, what needs to be clarified are the details of how schools which are not Covid-safe will be supported by the Department of Basic Education in the coming months.”
Educational psychologist at Pretoria University, Professor Kobus Maree said it seemed that the decision was a fairly unanimous one, taken in the best interests of all pupils.
“While urban schools may have preferred otherwise, understandably, rural and township (less well-resourced) schools are in a particularly vulnerable position, and their safety should override other considerations. All in all a considered response that I agree with. That said, younger children appear to be less vulnerable, and it may make sense to allow them to return to school earlier than older ones,” Maree said.
Education expert Professor Mary Metcalfe agreed with Maree.
“My understanding is that unions at a national level indicated that they were consulted. With decisions like this it’s key that people accept the decision and that everyone feels like partners with the state,” she said.
Metcalfe stressed that there is much preparation that needs to be done to ensure that schools are ready like the availability of PPE and sanitisation.
DA MP Baxolile Nodada said they strongly believed that the health and safety of pupils and teachers should be prioritised, but they did not believe delaying the start of the academic year would achieve that.
Nodada said instead of halting schooling for two weeks, the department should have used the school holidays wisely and worked meticulously to equip schools with proper Covid-resources to keep pupils and teachers safe.
Freedom Front Plus’ Wynand Boshoff said delayed reopening could very well turn this into a second crisis year.
“The sustained lockdown may necessitate some changes to education that should have been made a long time ago already,” Boshoff said.
– Additional reporting by Tanya Waterworth, Duncan Guy and Keagan Mitchell.