Opening schools so soon is 'reckless'

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga. Picture: GCIS
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga. Picture: GCIS

With many poorer schools lacking the required sanitation and safety materials, unions and SGBs are demanding a postponement.

The planned reopening of schools for pupils in grades 7 and 12 tomorrow requires “divine intervention” as such a move is “reckless” and akin to an act of “criminality”, warn teacher unions and parent bodies.

And, they say, doing do will continue to perpetuate inequalities in the country.

On the eve of the expected reopening of schools, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga has been called on to postpone the date.

Yesterday afternoon, unions and representatives of school governing bodies (SGBs) met with Motshekga and the Council of Education Ministers, a group comprising provincial education MECs, to discuss the possibility of postponing the planned reopening.

READ: Schools not ready for reopening on Monday

Unions and SGBs have repeatedly voiced their concerns about the lack of the readiness of schools to receive children, warning that a one-size-fit-all approach will not work. They have cited the fact that well-off schools are better prepared for the reopening, whereas poor schools in rural areas and townships are still not ready. This is because many of them do not have the essential safety materials needed to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus.

Personal protective equipment (PPE), sanitisers and water tanks had not reached many schools by the weekend, and many had yet to be disinfected. This has cast doubt on their readiness to open.

Mugwena Maluleke, general secretary of the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union, said: “Safety and health cannot be taken for granted. The readiness of rich schools must not be used to measure the readiness of poor schools. The public education system is not ready to receive pupils. The measurement for readiness must take into account the poor schools. If a [poor] school is not ready in terms of cleanliness, disinfecting, PPEs, and occupational health and safety in terms on the Disaster Management Act, we cannot perpetuate the exposed inequalities. We must refuse this criminality.”

Mugwena Maluleke. Picture Foto: Muntu Vilakzi

He said working-class people were regarded as a cheap commodity and an expendable resource, and that “the poor are valueless”.

Thirona Moodley, spokesperson for the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of SA in KwaZulu-Natal, told City Press that, if “by some miracle”, schools were ready by tomorrow, they should reopen. However, she added that the likelihood of this being achieved would “require divine intervention”.

“Some schools still do not have water or toilets. The curriculum management for Grade 12 pupils has yet to be finalised and we have lists of schools that still do not have their PPEs,” she said, adding that these problems were being experienced in rural and urban schools.

GREAT DIVIDE

“There is a great divide between the haves and have-nots,” added Moodley. “Schools with the financial muscle have been able to finance their preparedness. Those schools will have an unfair advantage if they can start and the others cannot. They must all start at the same time.”

In Mpumalanga, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) insisted that the department was not ready for the scheduled reopening and had failed to provide the union with a return-to-work plan. It claimed that staff members had been coerced to attend workshops in preparation for the reopening of schools.

“At no stage will we donate the lives of workers and pupils to the pandemic due to the negligence of the department,” said provincial secretary Welcome Mnisi.

Mpumalanga MEC of Education Bonakele Majuba has been traversing the province’s three district municipalities to ensure that the project of providing water tanks to schools and installing basins for children to wash their hands is completed in time for the reopening of schools.

But Mnisi said members of Nehawu would not return to school until:
  • All employees were provided with two face masks each;
  • Employees and pupils were screened regularly;
  • The work environment was decontaminated by qualified service providers;
  • Enough sanitiser and hand-washing soap, and enough water was provided; and
  • Safe and clean water was provided.

Education authorities in North West and Gauteng also said some schools would have to postpone reopening their doors tomorrow. North West education MEC Mmaphefo Matsemela said pupils should not go to school tomorrow if their schools had not yet received PPEs.

“Our primary motto is to save lives. No pupil will be allowed in our schools without PPEs.”

READ: Fear, sadness and anger: The hidden impact of lockdown on children

She added that the department had already been addressing the issue of schools without water and those still using pit latrines before the lockdown.

The Northern Cape’s education MEC, Mac Jack, said the department was responding to the “criticism, increased anxiety and confusion in relation to the status of schooling”.

Jack said the department was doing well in terms of delivering hygiene packs. Nearly 2 000 screeners would be appointed and allocated according to the population size of each school.

In the Eastern Cape, local businesses in the OR Tambo region expressed their unhappiness at being excluded from providing supplies by blockading roads leading to schools. Trucks carrying PPEs were turned away in some areas.

Yusuf Cassim, the DA’s education spokesperson, said the province still had 756 schools lacking any source of water and 2 427 schools with no water in their water tanks. No water tanks had been delivered to any schools since Motshekga had announced the planned reopening, he said.

Cassim said a total of 5 024 schools required school support teams, but only 1 563 had been contracted, and school transport issues had also not been addressed.

Unless water and sanitation, along with the other non-negotiables we have put on the table, are met, we will not encourage our members to return to work
Cynthia Barnes, general secretary of the National Teachers’ Union

The gates of some schools were locked and there was clearly no action at some schools around Mthatha when City Press visited on Thursday. St Patrick’s Senior Secondary School in Gxulu village, near Mthatha, was still closed on Thursday because PPEs had not arrived. Teachers had also remained absent because the facility had not been sanitised.

But at Zingisa Comprehensive High School in Mthatha, a group of men in white protective gear were seen after they had just finished fumigating the classrooms.

In Limpopo, a school principal was so shocked when a City Press team dropped in to check on his institution’s readiness to resume classes tomorrow that he hid in the bathroom to avoid taking questions.

Such is the uncertainty and fear among teachers and education staff about whether schools will reopen, as directed by the education department, that they have avoided talking to the media.

The Congress of SA Students (Cosas) in the province said it had confirmed that 70% of pupils would not return until the department had provided PPEs and had deep-cleaned schools. The organisation urged parents to keep their children at home as it would be monitoring schools’ progress in this regard.

“The government must not gamble with our lives as we are human beings,” said Ntwanano Ngobeni, the chairperson of Cosas in Limpopo.

READ: Keeping children away from school will not stop them from getting infected

By Friday afternoon, senior teachers, preparing the ground for reopening at Capricorn High School in Polokwane, said they had no clue when PPEs would be delivered, as there had been no communication from the department.

Caiphas Moshutla, chairperson of the Saviour Association of School Governing Bodies, echoed the sentiments of Cosas, adding that teachers had not been trained to handle the situation.

“Children will be infected as most of the schools are not fumigated yet; they use pit and zinc toilets while some schools still do not have water … Teachers and support staff, including screeners, are not trained,” Moshutla said.

KwaZulu-Natal Education MEC Kwazi Mshengu and unions in the province have established the KwaZulu-Natal education command council, which will be chaired by the MEC to iron out issues of schools’ readiness.

Edwin Mkhize, the provincial secretary-general of labour federation Cosatu, said the education department had handled the reopening “recklessly”. He said that, following consultation, it was clear that “many of our poor ... schools are not ready to face challenges of Covid-19 come Monday”.

Cynthia Barnes, general secretary of the National Teachers’ Union, told City Press that the virus had highlighted the department’s neglect across the province.

“Unless water and sanitation, along with the other non-negotiables we have put on the table, are met, we will not encourage our members to return to work,” said Barnes.

Meanwhile, a study conducted by Supriate, a project management agency, found that 97% of school principals surveyed were confident that schools would reopen tomorrow. The agency conducted a survey on 400 principals in poor and rich primary and high schools (quintiles 1 to 5) and the leadership of independent schools across provinces.

The study also found that:
  • 62% of these schools were provided with PPEs;
  • 86% were equipped to test the temperatures of pupils for Covid-19 symptoms;
  • 93% of principals and SGBs had plans in place for a partial or full shutdown of their schools should pupils test positive, to avoid infections; and
  • 68% of principals were confident that their schools would be able to finish the 2020 curriculum.

The Centre for Development and Enterprise, an independent policy analysis and advocacy organisation, also issued a report this week in support of government’s decision to reopen schools.

But the report cautioned that schooling should not resume if safety precautions had not been provided to pupils and staff, stating: “Government must speed up the provision of these measures to ensure that school communities are kept safe and healthy – this is not a small task.”

  • Additional reporting by Mukurukuru Media.


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