Schools across the country have officially opened, despite many Western Cape Schools already having been open for a week.
On Monday 1 June, learners in the province returned to school, despite Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga’s announcement that schools would open a week later.
Following two weeks of uncertainty, there was no doubt yesterday, Monday 8 June, as thousands of Grade 7 and 12 learners made their way back to school after more than two months at home.
At the time of going to print, the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) was still compiling information on the opening of schools yesterday.
Spokesperson Bronagh Hammond tells People’s Post that there was an improvement from the previous week.
“We do not have figures currently as we are collating information. However, we can confirm that learner numbers have increased. Initial reports indicate that learner numbers have almost doubled,” she says.
Debbie Schäfer, the provincial education minister, defended the decision to open schools last week. She said schools in the province opened as the date was officially gazetted.
“We have been engaged in discussions at a national level over the weekend and were awaiting the minister’s announcement that was scheduled for 18:00 this evening. Given that this has now been postponed until tomorrow, we can no longer allow our schools to hover in a state of uncertainty. Following the national minister’s earlier announcements, we have pulled out all the stops as a province to ensure that we are ready for the arrival of learners tomorrow. Principals and staff have worked tirelessly to get all the health and safety requirements in place,” said Schäfer at the time.
But the decision to reopen schools was met with much dissatisfaction from several entities, including Equal Education and teacher unions.
Section27, the Equal Education Law Centre and Equal Education were “profoundly concerned” with last-minute announcements and the seemingly unprepared nature of readiness.
“A month had passed since this announcement. If plans were implemented as they were intended to be, all schools should have been properly sanitised, and PPE and the promised infrastructure ought to have been delivered in time for the re-opening date determined by Motshekga,” reads a statement by the three organisations.
“The failure of the DBE and most provincial education departments to comply with their undertakings and meet their own deadlines in terms of preparing schools for re-opening, unfortunately, mirrors their ongoing failures to provide textbooks, essential school infrastructure like toilets, and scholar transport. It is also undoubtedly frustrating for learners, school staff and caregivers who are already extremely anxious.”
On Wednesday 3 June, premier Alan Winde accompanied Schäfer on a visit to Rosebank Junior School to assess the school’s readiness. He praised the school for work done to ensure a smooth return of learners.
“The school ensured that there is hand sanitiser available everywhere, desks and gathering points have been marked to ensure social distancing, and there are also screening measures in place for each person entering and leaving the school premises,” says Winde.
However, parents are still in two minds about the return to school.
Alice Williams says her daughter has returned to school.
“We were confused about the schools opening, but our principal and staff have been very accommodating and my daughter returned to school on Tuesday 2 June. I kept her at home on Monday because of the mixed messages,” she says.
Williams says she spent the weeks leading up to the reopening of schools speaking daily with her daughters who are in grades 7 and 5 about keeping safe amid Covid-19.
“We spoke about washing hands and practised wearing masks. The schools need to return. It is important that the children finish their school year because 2020 has been disrupted enough and we cannot put everything on hold forever. I know that this disease is real and a threat, but I hope my children are prepared enough,” says Williams.
Another parent, Whitney Jacobs, says she will not be sending her children to school.
“I am looking into other options for my children. They do not know anything about social distancing and I do not think the teachers will be equipped to police this among all the other things they need to do. Especially at my children’s school where there are more than 40 children in a class,” she says.
“We should be allowed to decide for our kids and the government should assist us with options rather than tell us what our kids must do.”
In a social media poll, parents were opposed to having children redo their current academic year, especially those in Grade 7 and 12.
Other suggestions included using class marks from the first term and doing virtual examinations or research projects aside from the return to schools.
The South African Paediatric Association (SAPA), supported the decision to reopen schools.
SAPA president Prof Mignon McCulloch says there is uncertainty about the future trajectory of Covid-19 in South Africa, with more infections and a long duration being predicted.
“Children biologically contain SARS-CoV2 better than adults, are less likely to get sick if infected, have milder disease, are unlikely to die from Covid-19, and are probably less infectious than adults,” says McCulloch.
“Although children are at higher risk of being infected once at school, this additional risk to themselves and others is outweighed by the benefits of them returning to school.”
McCulloch acknowledged the controversy regarding the reopening of schools and the conflicting views expressed by the government, teacher trade unions, political parties, civil society organisations, school governing bodies and parents, among others.
“This has led to much parental, caregiver and child anxiety about whether children should return to school,” he says.
“We acknowledge that parental anxiety is not unfounded, with some children at higher risk for severe disease. Parental and caregiver autonomy must be respected. High-risk children and those children whose caregivers elect not to send them to school are as entitled to education and efforts should continue to facilitate this.”
He says teachers are not at high risk of contracting Covid-19 from children and are more likely to contract the virus from other adults, including at home and from other colleagues.
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