“To be, or not to be, that is the question,” is Hamlet’s soliloquy in the Shakespeare classic.
Perhaps the most quoted of all Shakespeare’s works even by many who never read a single of his works.
I think it’s an apt phrasing for the decision “to reopen, or not to reopen”.
I couldn’t help but have feeling of déjà vu, thinking of January/February 1977 when the Soweto Student Representative Council (SSRC), led by Khotso Seathlolo – his predecessor Tsietsi Mashinini having skipped the country – had to make that difficult decision.
Should the students of Soweto schools reopen and write examinations they did not write in 1976, or should they continue boycotting and march until all their comrades in detention were released?
History will record that the voices that said the schools should reopen won the day.
And young Seathlolo, like his predecessor now on the most wanted list of the draconian state, skipped the country to join Mashinini across the Molopo river.
There would be many such situations for the Young Lions of the 80s. But that’s a story for another day.
Then we were pupils, now we are parents or grandparents faced with a similar question for our children or grandchildren.
Should government, under a much friendlier Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, reopen the schools or not so that the “this academic year” is not lost?
Alternatively, should we succumb to a different draconian threat of the Covid-19 coronavirus and refuse that the schools should be reopened – until I am not sure when?
Experts unfortunately have not been very helpful in this regard.
They say “we will peak either in August, September or October this year”, whatever that means.
I suspect the binomial curve beginning to really be flattened and start the gradual process to hopefully get to zero, or manageable size of infections like usual seasonal colds and influenza.
All the experts seem to agree on one thing: this Covid-19 is going to be around for some time until a vaccine specific for this novel virus is found which will be the second half of next year.
All necessary protocols that the World Health Organisation goes through need to be satisfied before that vaccine gets the go ahead to be released for the whole world.
Unfortunately, this means the “monied” countries, the so-called developed nations, are likely to have the first bite of the cherry then eventually us the “emerging markets” will get our turn.
That could push us easily to September next year.
Now here is my question, should we not reopen the schools as proposed by Motshekga with all the long list of objections by the teacher unions?
I was going to add Congress of SA Students, then somebody whispered into my ear that unlike the SSRC of Mashinini/Seathlolo/Montsisi/Somo they are technically not a pupils’ representative.
They operate more like a trade union of students, they are not attached to any schools, while they have shop stewards in the schools who are the ears on the ground.
Whether the schools reopen or not, they are not affected like the other interest groups.
The most voiceless group we should all be listening to, the school governing bodies’ silence is very loud.
After all it is them who get affected, whichever way you slice this dice.
It is irrelevant whether their children are in the fee-paying schools or not, whether their children are currently receiving virtual education in the private schools or upper echelons of the public schools or not, or even more worrying in a typical rural or township school where no virtual tuition is happening.
It doesn’t matter that there are various SABC channels trying to help pupils at home with catch-up tuition or not as Motshekga hinted, the strength of teaching in a primary and high school pupil is in a classroom.
How long should the schools stay shut? Factor in all the various costs of your answer to that township parent or pupil who was possibly going to be the first to matriculate in their family.
Even better, go on and be the first graduate and achieve what no capitalist or welfare state can achieve for a family to “break the poverty cycle”.
I need to nail my colours to the mast. I hold the view that says “to be” – that is reopen on a phased basis as the minister has said, having ticked all the boxes the national command council will require.
As has already been argued by the minister when the Grade 7s and Grade 12s arrive at a school, they are the easier to take instructions.
Those suspected of some symptoms must be put aside for further health checks.
They arrive and the whole school is available to them, which means social distancing should not be a problem.
The whole teacher cohort can spend time figuring out how the pupils will sit in classes for effective social distancing.
They should not be expecting the minister and the regional education office to be making those decisions for them.
After all, they are leaders and capable of decision-making.
These children will be in a structured environment to learn, not just about the curriculum at hand, but all the hygiene needed to fight Covid-19.
They will receive masks, which they may or may not get while at home; they will receive meals, their daily ration of a school feeding scheme.
They go back home better informed about Covid-19, not the myths, the conspiracy theories or the fake news.
They are in a better informed position to educate their families and neighbours.
What if they are infected, you ask?
Where are they going to be infected? I retort.
Everybody asks this question as if the coronavirus is currently in the schools licking its lips with glee waiting for June 1 when the first phase reopens.
That is not the case. In townships where these pupils live, there is no regard for lockdown level 5 let alone level 4.
People move with ease, roaming the streets and only disappearing into their yards when they smell the scent of Police Minister Bheki Cele’s foot soldiers.
They come from households with family members working at Checkers (whose staff have not stopped telling us they are essential workers, during lockdown) and various other economic sectors that are now open since level 4 on May Day.
Any infected pupil, teacher or staff member will be from outside the school yard.
Keeping the pupils from returning to school is not going to stop them from being infected.
What about the full school buses where there is no social distancing?
I don’t know how many they are, but if Minister Fikile “Fix It” Mbalula, was able to fix the taxi associations to toe the line, I don’t know how he is going to fail this Grade 1 challenge.
The alternatives, like we had in 1976/77 and the ‘80s are going to be a divided society.
The children of the haves will proceed to the next classes, the have nots will be picking the pieces and no poverty cycle will be broken.
*Modise is a concerned parent, education social activist and one of the leaders of the 1976 student uprisings
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