Confusion reigned this week due to a last-minute decision by the department of education that allowed matric pupils with Covid-19 to write their final exams.
As late as last week, the official position had been that no matrics with Covid-19, or with a temperature above 38°C, would be permitted to write.
But on Monday, the department announced that pupils with temperatures above 38°C would be allowed to write the exam at school, albeit in isolation.
Then, on Wednesday night, just hours before the first exam for the national senior certificate, the department of basic education and the department of health announced that pupils who had contracted Covid-19 would also be allowed to write, although they would have to do so in “different venues”.
Initially, many – including Basil Manuel, managing director of the teachers’ union Naptosa – assumed that “different venues” meant locations that were not on the school premises.
It has since come to light that the department was actually referring to isolation rooms at the schools.
Elija Mhlanga, spokesperson for the department of basic education, said that in terms of the guidelines for the reopening of schools in June, every school was meant to have an isolation room.
“They don’t have to set up any new structures,” he explained.
Schools were informed of the new arrangement on Wednesday, said Mhlanga.
“Every school looks at its own pupils. Remember, these aren’t big numbers.”
Manuel, however, questioned the move.
“These children have to get to school using public transport. Should a pupil with the virus get into a taxi full of people?”
He said that, while the union sympathised with pupils who had contracted the virus, the new measures conflicted with the protocols that had been hammered into South Africans.
“Who’s going to invigilate these exams? Certainly not our members,” he said, adding that Naptosa was prepared to assist with legal action in this regard.
Mhlanga said that teachers would invigilate in the same manner they had done earlier in the week, when Covid-19 cases had been identified.
“Where necessary, other officials from the department of health or the department of basic education will assist,” he said.
Naptosa said it had not been consulted about this significant decision, nor – as far as it was aware – had other teachers’ unions or organisations that represented parents.
“No logistical arrangements have been made. Education can’t be governed through press releases – we need official arrangements,” said the union.
Union Sadtu also criticised the decision.
Manuel said that, during a meeting between unions and Mathanzima Mweli, director-general of basic education, the department had apologised for not following proper procedures before making the announcement.
“We agreed that no teacher can be forced to invigilate. We also spoke about exam venues and the department agreed that schools should be used as a last resort.”
Yusuf Cassim, the DA’s spokesperson for education, called on the department of health to intervene urgently and provide alternative exam venues.
One of those trapped in this uncertainty is matric pupil Keisha Matthews (17), from Kraaifontein in Cape Town.
Last week, she tested positive for the virus, but did not experience any symptoms. Her aunt, Margo Botha, said she approached Keisha’s school about the English exam she was meant to write this past Thursday.
Botha said the school informed her that Keisha would be permitted to write in isolation.
Late on Wednesday night, the school informed them that this would no longer be possible, because the necessary arrangements had not been made.
“As a family, we tried to support Keisha. She was crying so much,” said Botha.
Matthews said she was heartbroken and could not understand why this was happening.
“But yesterday afternoon [Thursday], we heard on the news that provision had in fact been made for children with Covid-19.”
Botha then began phoning around and contacted the district manager, later even getting in touch with the MEC for education in the Western Cape.
She said officials from the department assured her that Matthews would be able to write her Afrikaans exam at Kraaifontein High School on Friday.
“We were already in the car on the way there when the official phoned again and said she wouldn’t be allowed to write, after all. But the principal of Kraaifontein High School still said they were ready for Keisha to write, so she did.”
Matthews has been provisionally accepted to study education at the University of the Western Cape next year.
The Western Cape department of education said it had also understood the term “different venues” in the department’s press release to mean that a pupil would not be permitted to write at the school itself.
The department said it had not been consulted about the decision and that no protocols had been made available.
The new announcement by the department of basic education indicated that a Covid-19-positive candidate must write at an isolation centre to be managed by the department of health, said Bronagh Hammond, spokesperson for the Western Cape department of education.
“But the centre doesn’t exist, because there was no agreement about it and no arrangements were made.”