Lockdown: Anxiety fills Gauteng schools, but principals determined to sail through uncharted waters

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Pupils in class.
Pupils in class.
Roger Sedres
  • Grade 12 pupils have returned to school after being away for a week.
  • Some schools in Gauteng are preparing for more grades that are expected back by the end of August.
  • A principal at one school says they have not been given directions on labour issues which poses a challenge as schools plan on working towards completing the curriculum.

Schools in South Africa continue to sail uncharted waters as the country grapples with rising Covid-19 infections across all nine provinces. 

There have been multiple changes to the operations of schools since they were first closed in March following concerns over the spread of the coronavirus. 

This resulted in teaching in classrooms being stopped for more than 10 weeks, and just when things had seemingly settled after Grade 12 and 7 pupils returned on 8 June, another break was announced in July

Two weeks ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a four-week break from 27 July to 24 August.

The only exception was for those in Grade 12 who would only stay at home for one week from 27 July, while pupils in Grade 7 would return to their classrooms after two weeks at home.

All other grades would return by 31 August, according to amended regulations by the Department of Basic Education. 

READ | Schools could close on 15 December, matric results to be released in February, leaked proposal shows 

The department released a revised calendar for the 2020 school year on Saturday.

It states the year's programme, including teaching and assessment, for grades R to 11 will conclude on 15 December, while the Grade 12 examinations will also be completed by the same date.

While anxiety is evident among some teachers as they swim through the storm, there is also a sense of determination and hope as schools strive to complete the curriculum and see pupils passing their grades.

Overcrowding concerns

News24 caught up with three schools in Gauteng on Monday as Grade 12 pupils returned from their week-long recess.

The principal of Unity Secondary School in Benoni, Wandile James Makhubu, said the school would have a serious space problem as more grades returned to school.

He added the school's management had had to come up with plans to ensure everyone would be accommodated without going against regulations and guidelines set by the department.  

"The problem is overcrowding. I think we are one of the biggest schools in Gauteng because we have got 2 300-plus learners," said Makhubu, adding this made it difficult to adhere to social distancing protocols.

"Which means we needed to think out of the box".

He added the school was now planning to use a platooning system especially for grades 8 and 9 - and have them attending classes from the afternoon. 

Unity Secondary has 347 matric pupils.

The platooning system, however, remained an issue as the school now had to negotiate with teaching staff to ensure they complied with labour regulations, Makhubu said.

He added the school would be negotiating with teachers to ensure teaching and learning took place at interchangeable times. 

Makhubu added:

We have never been given direction in terms of labour issues, but in terms of arranging, we have plans in place.

Some of the changes the school plans to implement is interchanging grades 10 and 11 as well as having them attend classes for six or seven days a week. However, that would depend on whether teachers were willing to dedicate their time to teach on Saturdays and Sundays. 

Absenteeism and mental health

Makhubu said his school had the advantage of making use of online teaching and learning which had placed their matrics in a better position to complete the syllabus and prepare for exams. 

He added the school was, however, concerned about absenteeism and the mental health of its pupils, especially those in matric. 

"The uncertainty is giving a lot of instability within the school. The stop-and-go [closing and reopening] makes learners not stable, but I am busy working on their mentality, I am motivating them".

Makhubu said he had sleepless nights as the schools were uncertain about what the future held and whether the system would cope when all the pupils were back.

Mark Peterson, the principal at Forest High School in southern Johannesburg, told News24 teachers and Grade 12 pupils were already active in classes on Monday morning. 

Peterson said the school was ready to welcome back more grades, adding there was, however, a sense of anxiety at the school.  

"There will be some challenges, but we will deal with them as they crop up but for most of it, we are prepared. The staff is positive and they are here today," he added.

Peterson said:

There is still hope.

Chasing syllabus

Musawenkosi Nzuza, the deputy principal of George Khoza Secondary School in Dobsonville, Soweto, said the school was "110% ready to receive grades according to the phasing-in process".

He added a challenge the school could face, however, was whether it would have enough teachers to lead teaching under physical distancing protocols. 

Nzuza said teaching and learning had also restarted at the school as planned for Grade 12s. 

He added the school would rotate teaching for various grades once all the children returned by the end of the month. 

Nzuza said the school had already planned for matrics and while they were ready for others, they did not rule out unforeseen problems emerging.

"Right now, we are going to have a timetable review and see how can we look at subjects we are behind with, and allocate them more time to cover them up by the month of August, so that by the time we reach September, we should at least be at 90% in terms of syllabus completion".

He added the school would also prioritise mathematics and sciences to ensure the syllabus was covered before exams got under way. 

"There is still hope. I was telling these kids this morning that besides [Covid-19 in the way], let's remain positive. We are living in different times," Nzuza said. 

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