Teachers with comorbidities – who have been working from home for months – will have no reason to continue doing so when schools reopen late next month, as almost everyone in the education sector is expected to have been vaccinated by then.
Pupils will not only return to classrooms next month, but will resume a traditional five-day school week, with those in primary school no longer attending on alternate days.
These were among the announcements made by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga yesterday. She added that teachers and other workers in the sector (volunteers, food handlers, administrative employees, staff of teachers’ unions, caretakers, groundspeople, contracted security and cleaning staff, as well as school transport drivers) would receive Covid-19 vaccinations over two weeks, starting from Wednesday.
The vaccination roll-out will end on July 9, just a day before schools close for their winter break.
Motshekga said the plan was to have 582 564 people in the sector vaccinated over the 14-day period.
With the vaccination expected to lower the risk of fatal complications in those infected with the virus, Motshekga said: “After this round of vaccinations, we’ll expect everybody to come back. [Even if] you have comorbidities, we expect you to come back to work because you’ll have been given an opportunity to protect yourself.
“In instances where people don’t want to be vaccinated, but they have comorbidities, we’d have to engage with the unions about them. I think this is something we can resolve with the unions,” she said.
Motshekga continued to express the sector’s appreciation of the vaccination programme, saying the department had requested weeks ago that teachers and support staff in basic education receive the jabs as a matter of urgency.
“The request was made in the context of the learning losses already suffered since March 2020 as a direct result of Covid-19. The truth is that recovery isn’t possible in the short term,” she said.
“Our researchers have done a lot of work trying to quantify the extent of the teaching and learning losses in the sector. The question is: What do we do now?”
Motshekga welcomed the news that 300 000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine had been secured for the education sector and had arrived in the country on Thursday, adding that the vaccines were undergoing tests before being distributed to provinces tomorrow and on Tuesday, just before the two-week vaccination period for teachers and other workers in schools began.
A further 280 000 doses were expected to arrive early next week.
Motshekga said schools would remain open throughout the two-week vaccination period.
“Any disruptions would be undesirable. The vaccination of everybody in the sector is an opportunity to normalise schooling and begin the process of mitigating the impact of Covid-19,” she said.
These announcements came just a week after EFF leader Julius Malema asked for the immediate closure of schools in the wake of steadily increasing daily Covid-19 infections in at least four provinces.
On Wednesday, Malema said his party was giving the department seven days to close schools, or the EFF would close them themselves.
In response to this, Motshekga said she was taking her cue from the ministerial advisory committee, the Covid-19 national command council and Cabinet, adding that schools could only be closed on the authority of the highest level of government.
“If there are any disruptions, it won’t be my matter, [but] the police’s. Disruptions are an illegal act,” she said.
“If parents say children must go to school and teachers say they’ll be there, then I’m happy. If the principals say they feel that they can continue, then I’m happy. That’s where I take my cue from.”
The minister added that there was no need for the “wholesale closure of schools” every time there was a rise in infections.
“At all times, we follow the advice of public health experts, who’re supporting us in the management of the impact of Covid-19. We believe that schools must remain open and, in saying so, we’re not insensitive to the concerns raised about the rising infections,” she said.
“The position is that we continue to handle Covid-19 cases according to the differentiated strategy, on a province-by-province and school-by-school basis. While there are disruptions in the sector, the majority of our schools remain fairly stable. Our social partners and key stakeholders expressed the same view in our engagement.
“There have to be scientific reasons for all decisions that are made.”