Covid-19: Night vigil in support of principal who refused to open his school during peak

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Heathfield High School principal Wesley Neumann is facing disciplinary charges after refusing to open the school at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. (Marecia Damons/GroundUp)
Heathfield High School principal Wesley Neumann is facing disciplinary charges after refusing to open the school at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. (Marecia Damons/GroundUp)
Marecia Damons
  • Wesley Neumann, the principal of Heathfield High School in Cape Town, faces a disciplinary hearing, starting on Thursday.
  • He is charged with misconduct after refusing to open the school during the Covid-19 infection peak.
  • On Wednesday night, teachers, principals and parents held a night vigil to support him.

About 70 parents, teachers, pupils and community members gathered at Heathfield High School in Cape Town on Wednesday night to support a principal who faces disciplinary action after refusing to open the school during the Covid-19 peak.

In June, principal Wesley Neumann and other high school and primary school principals wrote an open letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa and Cabinet members requesting that schools be closed.

According to the Western Cape Education Department (WCED), the teachers and Grade 12 pupils at Heathfield High School were required to return to school on 1 June.

When Neumann refused to allow staff and pupils to return to school, the WCED scheduled a disciplinary hearing for 7 October.

READ HERE | Covid-19: Western Cape matric pupils who test positive won't be allowed on school premises

He approached the Labour Court to stop his disciplinary hearing and the matter was postponed. On 2 November, the WCED reported that the Labour Court had ruled in favour of the department by striking Neumann's interdict application off the roll with costs.

WCED spokesperson Bronagh Hammond told GroundUp: "Various officials engaged with Mr Neumann, attempting to persuade him to reopen the school or keep it open for those learners that, according to National Directions, were required to attend school. Mr Neumann continued to actively participate in a campaign against the reopening of schools."

Neumann is facing six charges, including failure to carry out the lawful instruction of the employer, committing misconduct by encouraging personnel not to report for duty and discouraging the attendance of pupils, and prejudicing the administration, discipline or efficiency of the WCED.

READ | Brackenfell High: Matrics wrote exam with no disruptions, says school's governing body

Former Trafalgar High School principal Nadeem Hendricks, who attended the vigil, said the department's actions were meant to discourage communities and schools from contesting its future decisions.

"This is how they react to a community that stands for justice and to a community that stands for the best interests of the children.

"Wesley Neumann didn't have an agenda, he had compassion. He cared for his community, and his community demanded of him to extend that care. He made some sacrifices in order to protect their children and here he stands persecuted. How unjust can that be?" Hendricks said.

The convenor of the civil society group South Africa First Forum, Rod Solomons, said if Neumann was dismissed or received a heavy sanction, "we will mobilise whatever resources we can to support him and Heathfield High in asserting their democratic rights".

READ HERE | Super School Apex High: 'We showed that we are willing to do whatever it takes'

Brian Isaacs, former principal of South Peninsula High School, said citizens had the right to question the government and its decisions. Isaacs was dismissed as principal in 2016 following charges of misconduct.

"I stood for what I believed in. I wasn't going to bow down to people who have no interest in the education of the children," he said.

"Mr Neumann, together with the school governing body and the Heathfield community, stood firm. We must prevent our teachers from being bullied by the government in the Western Cape."

Joshua Isaacs, a Grade 11 pupil at Heathfield High, said Neumann "made it his life's duty" to ensure that every pupil's right to standard and quality education was "both recognised and fulfilled".

"I have seen the positive changes to our school since I started here in Grade 8. That is only because of the hard work, dedication and persistence of our principal," he said.

"The WCED will let the relevant processes run so as to enable a presiding officer to decide on the merits of the matter, based on the facts and the law in this regard," Hammond said.

The disciplinary hearing is scheduled for 3, 4 and 7 December.
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