The once active playground is eerily quiet. The sound of children’s laughter which filled the air, of classmates chatting away down the corridors or even the sound of rushing feet making their way to the teacher’s car to help carry books and school supplies has become something of the past at this Eastern Cape school.
For Parkside Primary School teacher Lizelle Abrahams (51), the new normal consists of sparsely populated classrooms, bare school courtyards and an evident sense of fear on the faces of her pupils and fellow staff.
Since the devastation of the Covid-19 pandemic hit South Africa earlier this year, schooling is one of the sectors that has been impacted by the wave of changes that have had to be put in place by the government.
Parents, teachers and pupils alike have had an anxiety-inducing past few months with the ongoing battle of whether or not schools should close or remain open as a way forward during the pandemic. The second phase of schools reopening earlier this month saw rising concerns because of the evident peak of the coronavirus in the country.
However, this week President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the closure of schools for the next four weeks from Monday 27 July, while matric learners are set to have just one week off and two for Grade 7s.
For Lizelle, it means business as usually after the two-week break. Every day it’s the same thing: the smiles that once welcomed her at the school’s gate are now covered by masks and instead of a hug or a handshake, she’s greeted by a temperature scanner and hand sanitiser.
“My day starts as early as 5am and I leave home by 6.30am to get to school by 7am,” she says. “The same procedure is done when I enter the main admin block wearing the required PPE. We also have the same system in place for learners upon entering the school premises and whenever they enter or exit the classroom,” Lizelle says.
Since the reopening of school, Lizelle, who is the head of department for the foundation phase at the school, has also had to step in as acting principal because the current principal is at a higher risk of contracting the virus, being over 60 and with underlying conditions; while the deputy principal also suffers from underlying conditions.
Fortunately, her Grade 2 learners haven’t been phased into schooling yet, with only the Grade 7s at school. Even then, the attendance numbers are dismal with only about 25% of the 160 grade’s learners coming to school. The fear of contracting Covid19 is evident among all at school.
“I am suffering from anxiety, sleeping disorders and always wondering what tomorrow brings,” Lizelle says, defeated. “It is a constant battle not just to teach but to remind the learners to sanitise, to keep their masks on, to keep social distancing,g no touching, no sharing of food or stationery – while dealing with my own fears and anxiety.”
Staff and management meetings are now held in minimal numbers and sometimes even conducted via WhatsApp to communicate with one another. To date, five teachers have tested positive for Covid-19 at Parkside Primary, others have been in quarantine or unable to work because of underlying conditions – with pressure felt by the few existing teachers.
However, Lizelle says her biggest concern are the kids and their health as many don’t inform the school or their teachers about possible infections in their homes because of a fear of stigmatisation. But it’s also their quality of education that’s been affected. While the school curriculum and timetables have changed to accommodate the current circumstances, there isn’t much learning going on at the school.
“I sometimes have to counsel the learners myself as there’s no psycho-social support for them. The school has been in existence for more than 50 years and we serve the underprivileged communities of Parkside, Duncan Village, Pefferville, Parkridge, Mdantsane, Scenery Park and surrounding areas in East London. The majority of the learners are from vulnerable communities. We have a total of 1 300 learners at the school and lack ablution facilities,” she adds.
“The saddest part is seeing those once bubbly and joyful learners become introverts in such a short space of time. Although the school nutrition programme is in place, it’s no motivation for learners to come to school, these learners are fearful of being infected.”
Her anxiety and concerns don’t end once she leaves the gates of the school for home. She fears for her family too, her husband and youngest daughter both suffer from underlying conditions. Before stepping into the house, she removes her shoes, sanitises and immediately changes out of her clothes and has a shower. Every little thing counts, she believes.
But if she had her way, Lizelle would close schools as a matter of urgency until the curve is flattened, while allowing the government to plan for proper interventions. Until then, she continues to soldier on – one day, one mask and one prayer at a time.
“I have to be strong for the learners, myself, my family and my fellow colleagues,” Lizelle says. “It all really hits me and become unbearable, especially when I am alone, but I have to keep strong.”