Safety first calls grow as govt scrambles to save academic year

How is the government going to address the education problem during lockdown?
How is the government going to address the education problem during lockdown?
GroundUp

While the country awaits an update from the Department of Basic Education on how it plans to reopen schools post lockdown, unions believe there are outstanding issues that need to be considered before any moves are finalised and revealed to the public.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga and her higher education counterpart, Blade Nzimande, were expected to hold a virtual media briefing on Monday, but it was postponed the day before.

The departments said they needed to align their interventions with those of the National Command Council, which is leading the government's planning in response to the spread of the coronavirus.

Motshekga, in particular, is under acute pressure to salvage the 2020 academic year.

But the South African Democratic Teachers' Union (Sadtu) says the conditions under level four lockdown is still not conducive to the reopening of the schools because there isn't enough necessary essential equipment.

Sadtu also says many classrooms and learning centres will not be fit to ensure physical distancing while teaching.

Precautions

The union believes the department needs to consider safety precautions first before returning to face-to-face mass teaching.

It says the departments must take into account the available data on the rate of increase in the number of people testing positive for Covid-19.

READ: From masks to desk screens: How unions see physical distancing working once schools reopen

"The level 4 stage is still not conducive for the reopening of the schools because we don’t have the necessary essentials and classrooms or workshops that can comply with the 1.2m physical distancing.

"Stage 4 still doesn't allow for the production of stationery and education materials. What we are worried about is that the [personal protective equipment] are not there currently, as we can see in the Eastern Cape hospitals," Sadtu secretary-general Mugwena Maluleke told News24 on Monday.

Maluleke said the union's leadership was of the view that schools were most vulnerable because of the high number of pupils in one space, coupled with the risks posed by using public transport, buses or private lift services.

Maluleke said provincial departments would also need to be ready, with all the essentials, by the time the phasing in stage begins.

The executive director of the National Professional Teachers' Organisation of South Africa (Naptosa), Basil Manuel, said his union was also of the view that there were outstanding issues the government needed to address before briefing the nation. 

He said while the union did not differ with Motshekga on the decision to have pupils return to school, it was concerned about whether there would be enough personal protective equipment at schools.

"I'm talking about the masks, cleaning equipment, additional staff, sanitisers, and the plan - because the plan at provincial level must mimic the plan at national level. We can't have provinces running off, doing their own thing. Those things are not in place," Manuel said. 

He said Naptosa believed it would take some time to ensure schools were ready with all the necessary equipment. 

"As of now, we cannot open schools because the schools are not ready. The plans are not all in place and that is where our sticking point has been."

News24 previously reported that a leaked basic education post-lockdown recovery draft plan revealed that officials planned to send children back to school in phases from 6 May, depending on their grade.

Meanwhile, the department has distanced itself from a message circulating on WhatsApp suggesting that it was calling for input from South Africans regarding the opening of schools. 

Meanwhile, the ANC's Umkhonto we Sizwe military veterans association (MKMVA) has joined the chorus of those calling on the government not to reopen schools as the countrywide hard lockdown comes to an end this week.

The ANC structure, in a statement on Monday, said the reopening of schools would reverse the gains made by the government in the battle against the deadly outbreak.

Resist the temptation

"It defies logic that, on the one hand, the government insists on, and enforces, a strict ban of social gatherings, but then considers gathering our children and young people in educational facilities," said MKMVA spokesperson Carl Niehaus.

"[The] MKMVA urges our government to resist the temptation to reopen schools and tertiary education facilities at this still very unstable and precarious stage, in the battle to contain the spread of the coronavirus," said Niehaus.

"This will create some of the worst possible conditions to propagate the spread of the coronavirus among our vulnerable children, and for them to bring such infections back home, and thus to spread the highly infectious coronavirus throughout our communities."

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