Cape Town principal guilty of misconduct for refusing to open school during Covid-19 peak

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Members of the Heathfield High School community protest outside the school, asking the department to drop all charges against Principal Wesley Neumann.
Members of the Heathfield High School community protest outside the school, asking the department to drop all charges against Principal Wesley Neumann.
Gallo Images/Brenton Geach
  • A Cape Town principal has been found guilty of allowing worried parents to keep their children at home while waiting out a Covid-19 infection peak.   
  • Wesley Neumann of Heathfield High says he was listening to the concerns of parents. 
  • The Western Cape education department says the parents had the option of applying for exemptions to class-based learning.  

The principal of Heathfield High School in Cape Town has been found guilty in a disciplinary hearing for not reopening the school as instructed during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Wesley Neumann had allowed pupils to stay at home because parents were worried about the surging cases at the time. 

However, this was in defiance of an instruction by the Western Cape education department to tell staff and pupils to return to school. 

The department confirmed Neumann was found guilty of six charges of misconduct, which included being disrespectful to the previous head of department, Brian Schreuder.

READ | Door handles, toilet paper - schools looted bare in Gauteng, KZN

"The sanction has yet to be determined as the process is yet to be finalised," said its spokesperson, Bronagh Hammond. 

Neumann was not suspended. 

However, his supporters said he was the victim of an abuse of power by Schreuder, and was doing what was in the best interests of the pupils.

The charges relating to the bitter dispute were:

1. Misconduct: Attempted assault or threatened assault of a pupil by allegedly smacking him in the face and pointing a finger at him. 

2. Misconduct: Neumann failed to carry out instruction by the head of department by sending a letter to the parents saying pupils must be back at school from 3 August; ensuring Grade 12 teachers are teaching every day of the school week; and, informing the school governing body (SGB) in writing of these instructions. He also had to tell the SGB instructions or coercion to the contrary falls outside their functions of governance and oversight.

3. Misconduct: Displayed disrespect toward Schreuder in the workplace or demonstrated abusive or insolent behaviour towards him with remarks that included: "You resorted to pre-1994 methods of issuing instructions in baasskap manner instead of engaging with the school."

4. Misconduct: Brought the department into disrepute by including "all media houses" in an email to Schreuder. 

5. Misconduct: Misused his position in the department or his position as a representative on the SGB of Heathfield High by inciting staff, pupils and the community not to attend school or to report for duty during the Covid-19 pandemic, via social media platforms.

6. (Alternative to main charge) Misconduct: Distributed pictures, videos and commentary on Facebook criticising government policies.

The complex saga has its roots in Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga's last-minute instruction that only staff would return to school on 1 June 2020 because not all schools were ready to reopen. 

There were water issues in some areas, and others schools had not completed their cleaning processes.

The pupils were due back on 8 June 2020 instead of when Motshekga expected all schools to be ready. 

However, the department said its schools were ready, and it expected grades 7 and 12 to be back in class by 1 June so they could catch up on the lost term.

It added that was also the return date in the government gazette at the time.

However, like many, parents at Heathfield High School were concerned their children would still be at risk.

READ | A lesson in a lack of leadership - what Motshekga taught pupils this weekend

A spokesperson for the parents' lobby group, Allan Liebenberg, which supported Neumann, told News24 the school was never closed outside of the directives of the national Department of Basic Education. 

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA - APRIL 21: Members of the
Members of the Heathfield High School community protest outside the school, asking the department to drop all charges against Principal Wesley Neumann.

"The school was open, with the principal and staff in attendance," he added.

"The parents resolved in an SGB meeting to return their children to school when the infection curve comes down. This was the practice in many countries.

"The question here is, under these circumstances, who has a greater say over the education of children. The parents or the education department and where does that leave the principal? He is both an education official and a community leader."

Liebenberg said he felt Neumann had been treated unfairly by Schreuder. 

There was also an allegation a staff member was "bribed" with the extension of their contract if they testified again Neumann. 

The department said this claim was investigated and turned out to be untrue. 

READ | Covid-19: Free coffee, museum tours and dildos: Growing list of discounts, prizes for those who get a jab

Hammond added there was a clear policy for parents who were afraid of the risks to their children, or people in their home with comborbidities.

"They can apply to not to send their children to school.

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA - APRIL 21: Members of the
The Heathfield High School community was in support of principal Wesley Neumann.

"The parent and the school would then enter into an agreement on the responsibilities of both the school and the parent on how the child's learning at home would be managed."

She said on the other hand, the department's directions also allowed for parents, who wished to send their child to school, to do so, as declared by President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Hammond added the overwhelming majority of parents in the Western Cape took this option. 

Asked whether a principal had the autonomy to close a school for health reasons, she said they had to apply to the provincial head of department for this. 

"The department has temporarily closed hundreds of schools during the Covid-19 period, subject to the necessary procedures and approvals."

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