Ahead of the end-of-year school exams, the Western Cape education department has called on matric pupils and their parents to consider the risks associated with attending large social events.
This follows a recent incident when 38 matriculants about to write exams tested positive for the Covid-19 coronavirus after a night out at a bar in Cape Town’s southern suburbs.
The incident put the safety of learners in and out of school under the spotlight.
Kerry Mauchline, spokesperson for Western Cape Education MEC Debbie Schäfer, tells Spotlight that it is understandable that learners want to have fun after a difficult year.
“But this must be done safely. It is all very well for the department to require schools to implement social distancing, mask-wearing, hand washing and the like at schools and during exam sittings, but if learners do not follow these when not at school then they are putting themselves at unnecessary risk. It is up to learners and their parents to take responsibility for what they do after school,” she says.
The department has written to all schools in the province to once again alert them to the importance of ensuring that young people behave in a way that keeps themselves and others safe.
Mauchline says the department previously ran orientation programmes that included education on the virus and measures to keep themselves safe.
“Schools continue to engage directly with their students, but they cannot control what happens outside of the school premises. That is why it is important that both learners and parents play their part in ensuring that Covid-19 safety and health guidelines are followed,” she says.
Safety measures in schools
Responding to questions on the safety measures the department has in place at schools, Mauchline says schools continue to implement the detailed Covid-19 prevention measures that have been in place since schools re-opened in June.
“These include social distancing, regular cleaning of surfaces, daily screening, handwashing/sanitising, the wearing of masks and a detailed protocol to be followed when a positive case is reported at a school,” she says.
According to Mauchline, 792 learners have tested positive for Covid-19 in the Western Cape since June 1, which amounts to 0.06% of total learners in the province. She says there are currently 58 active cases of Covid-19 among school staff in the province.
With matric exams coming up, the department is working hard to ensure that schools will follow strict safety protocols during matric examinations as instructed by the national education department.
These, she says, include that all learners and staff must wear masks at all times unless directed to take a mask break. This is allowed under level 1of South Africa’s lockdown.
Mauchline says the concept of face mask breaks of between five to 15 minutes every two hours during the school day was introduced by the national department in its standard operating procedures for schools.
These breaks are taken outdoors while maintaining a distance of at least one metre from other people on the school grounds.
During examinations, learners are also allowed a mask break while writing. All learners and staff must follow the 1m physical distancing rule, be screened daily, and sanitise their hands before and after handling exam papers.
She explains that examination venues cannot be used for any other classes or activities and learners who test positive for Covid-19 during the examinations will have to write the examination next year in May or June, as directed by the national department.
The same applies to learners who have to isolate due to close contact with a confirmed case of Covid-19.
Dr Karen van Kets, a general practitioner who is part of a group of doctors advising schools on Covid-19 safety, tells Spotlight it is not just learners going to bars that can pose a threat, “but any social occasion, even in a private home, has the potential to be an unprotected interaction”.
Van Kets says apart from spot checks by the department of labour and environmental health officials, individuals and families can keep safe by remembering that their risk is determined by their behaviour. They should only go to establishments that are adhering to the guidelines for Covid-19 compliance. There is a hotline to report any businesses not complying, she says.
A parenting issue
As far as keeping learners from taverns and bars, Van Kets says: “It is a parenting issue and the schools don’t really have any control over how scholars spend their free time”.
“There has been communications from schools and in the media to highlight and remind parents and scholars of the implications and consequences of attending social gatherings where masks are removed and the possibility of having an unprotected interaction are increased,” she says.
Van Kets says there can be more targeted education campaigns and reminders in the public domain.
“At schools that I am aware of and involved with, there is plenty education and pupils are reminded of the golden rules. The precautionary measures at schools are also working because there has been very little secondary spread within a school setting from the outbreaks at social events,” she points out.
Meanwhile, a recent survey found that around one in three adults in South Africa do not always wear a mask when leaving home.
Van Kets says this may be because there is “some discomfort from wearing a mask that fits incorrectly or is too tight or too restrictive”.
“The purpose of a cloth or surgical mask worn in public is to limit the spread of the virus droplets from someone who has the infection but has no symptoms or the very infectious time, [which is] one or two days before someone shows symptoms. Wearing a mask is not 100% going to stop the spread, but it will drop the chances to single digits and that severely slows the spread of the infection in a community,” she explains.
“This has been shown to be the case in schools and old age homes where there is very little continued spread of infection where good infection control protocols are followed.”
Protecting older people
Van Kets says that often young people are more worried about their older family members than they are about themselves, especially if they live in a multi-generational household or have parents with comorbidities.
“In households where teens have been socialising (birthday parties) the parents are the organisers of these events and may not be taking Covid as seriously as they could and then setting the example for their children. There are parents and older people who have Covid fatigue; they are just tired of living with restrictions and how it has affected their livelihoods has made life very difficult. No one is enjoying this new world we are in. On the whole teenagers and young adults have a sense of invincibility and risk taking behaviour which often revolves around socialising. And when we add alcohol, then poor decision-making will often increase,” she says.
Van Kets says some young people seem to be convinced that the threat of Covid-19 is exaggerated by the media and with the easing of some regulations, some think the virus has been defeated.
“It certainly is not a deadly virus like Ebola with a 93% chance of dying from it,” she says, “but this illness can be serious for some and less so for others. The problem is that so many people, in fact everyone in our communities, are susceptible to be infected in a very short space of time. Even with a very small percentage of complicated infections requiring (hospital) admission the sheer number of people who need medical care is so overwhelming that we cannot tend to the other medical problems – the heart attacks, the diabetics who need their care monitored, the operations that are not life-saving but are necessary,” she says.
“There are so many people who will wait so much longer now to have that lump removed that is actually cancer,” says Van Kets.
Behaviour still the best defence
Echoing Van Kets’ sentiments, spokesperson for the Western Cape department of health, Mark van der Heever, tells Spotlight that clear guidelines have been issued to businesses, including pubs, advising on which safety measures need to be maintained to ensure the safety of everyone who attends a gathering.
“In addition, certain indoor activities must comply with the allotted number of people who can attend – as prescribed by the national regulations. Citizens need to be reminded that any social gathering should be considered as a potential superspreader event,” Van der Heever says, adding that “it is crucial that individuals and business need to collectively adhere social distancing requirements, sanitising and wearing masks at all times [except for when you eat or drink]”.
He says the latest number of infections in the province are predominantly among younger people.
“Although younger children and adolescents are at less risk of severe Covid-19, they can get infected. The risk is when they become infected and they can spread it to vulnerable groups such as their parents, grandparents and those with underlying illnesses,” he says.
The most important point to stress is that our best defence remains our behaviour, Van der Heever says.
“We cannot let our guard down and we must continue to wear our masks, avoid congregating in places where ventilation is poor, keep our distance of at least 1.5m and to continue washing/sanitising our hands.”
*This article was produced by Spotlight – health journalism in the public interest