#SchoolStayAway gets no support from teacher unions despite sharing similar concerns

A pupil at Delft South Primary School in Cape Town gets her temperature checked.
A pupil at Delft South Primary School in Cape Town gets her temperature checked.
Brenton Geach, Gallo Images
  • Teacher unions are not in support of a call for a school stay away.
  • The unions say they will not support politically motivated movements.
  • One South Africa Movement has vowed to protest every Friday across all provinces until their demands are met.

Teacher unions acknowledge there are issues still facing schools amid the Covid-19 pandemic, but they do not support disruptions by political movements trying to gain a "foothold" by using schools. 

News24 spoke to the unions on Friday during demonstrations at schools - under the hashtag #SchoolStayAway - curated by, among other organisations, former DA leader Mmusi Maimane's One South Africa Movement (OSAM).

OSAM said the stay away was initiated to send a strong message to Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga and the government that "concerned citizens, parents, and teachers are opposed to the unsafe reopening of schools and the risks it poses".

READ | Back to school: Here is the return date for every grade

Some schools across the country were disrupted on Friday by groups of people calling for the closure of schools during the country's peak Covid-19 infection period.

The movement also demonstrated outside the department's head offices in Pretoria, where they handed over a memorandum of demands.

Among their demands were that schools should close until the peak of the virus ends, and that examinations must be rescheduled for three months afterwards.

They also propose that the curriculum be adjusted to make up for lost time once the peak ends.

South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) has distanced itself from the demonstrations.

They say they are also aware that there had been communication using union logos, including Sadtu's, said spokesperson Nomusa Cembi. 

Cembi said no one had invited the union to be part of the stay away and they have informed their members to also distance themselves. 

She added they were, however, worried about the challenges still faced by schools.

She said there was a deviation from observing the set standard operating procedures and have requested a meeting with the minister to address the concerns. 

READ | All private preschools may reopen immediately, court rules

Executive director of the National Professional Teachers' Organisation of South Africa (Naptosa) Basil Manuel, however, said the idea of completely shutting down schools would be impossible. 

He said the disruptions were contemptuous and unfair, adding that the union had advised its members to distance themselves from the demonstrations.

Manuel said they were never consulted about the demonstrations, but they were aware of the fake news, which used union logos to insinuate they were part of the call for schools to shut. 

"We will not, as a matter of principle, support a political movement trying to gain a foothold using schools and teachers and so on.

"Yes, we agree, some of the issues there are true, there are some problems; however, we don't want to cross the pathway into supporting political strategies of individuals who have a different agenda to the agenda that is needed in schools," Manuel said.

Safety

Professional Educators' Union President Johannes Motona said they were a non-politically aligned organisation, with the sole purpose of quality education. 

Motona said the union rejects any call for schools to close completely. Instead they advocate for schools to be safe and those not meeting the required health and safety precautions to remain non-operational until deemed safe. 

"For us, if there is 100% compliance in terms of safety, we don't have a problem with schools operating because we are looking at the future of these learners," he said.

Motona added that the union, along with its members, could not heed a call from a politician.

They have advised their members to go to schools if they feel safe to do so, in order for teaching and learning to continue. 

Meanwhile, the National Teachers' Union (Natu) believes that a break during the peak of infections would be necessary because they were worried the department was failing to adhere to its own Covid-19 protocols. 

The union's president, Allen Thompson, said there were still reports of schools recording infections. He added that there were reports of pupils and teachers not being quarantined and still going to school while they waited for their results. 

He said it was likely that there would be an uncontrollable number of people testing positive for the virus, which is probably why some organisations were calling for schools to shut.

Irresponsible

"The department must consider taking an early break, for learners and teachers to remain at home. That will also buy time for the department to prepare itself further as we are expecting a large number of learners to join as the third cohort.

"We do support it, but we are saying there is no need for disruptions. The department must [however] understand we are now approaching the peak and we need to preserve the human resource, so that we prepare our schools. When we come back, every grade will be expected back and there will be no disruption in terms of the number of infections," he said. 

CEO of the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools, Paul Colditz, said the call for a stay away was "irresponsible". 

He said it seemed, now that OSAM leader Maimane had lost his court battle in a bid to bar schools from reopening, he was now using "fear to promote some agenda which is not in the interest of children". 

Earlier this month, the Gauteng High Court in Pretoria dismissed an application by the movement to have the reopening of schools stopped as the country fights the pandemic.

OSAM and Maimane also wanted the government to return the country to Level 4 of the lockdown and to have regulations promulgated under Level 3 set aside.

Colditz said the call for schools to shut was not based on any medical science, which had advised that it was in the interest of children to return to school, provided non-pharmaceutical health protocols are adhered to. 

"Schools should continue. We haven't had any complaints from our members today. I think the stay away call is irresponsible," Colditz said.

Approaching the courts to stop the disruptions at schools might be an option for the Department of Basic Education, News24 reported earlier on Friday. 

OSAM has vowed to protest every Friday across all provinces until Motshekga and the department meet their demands. 

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