'We sensed danger' - Lesufi appeals to private schools to postpone reopening

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Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi.
Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi.
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  • Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi has appealed to all schools to remain closed until 14 February.
  • Lesufi was visiting Helpmekaar Kollege, which had prepared to allow its 1 200 pupils to return to school on Monday.
  • The school has since decided to migrate to online learning.

Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi has appealed to private schools to follow the Department of Basic Education's directive that schools reopen on 15 February, as allowing pupils to return earlier could potentially place a huge strain on the province's health system.

Schools were due to open on 27 January. Some independent schools opened last week, but the majority were due to reopen on Monday.

Following consultations with education stakeholders, including teacher unions, school governing bodies and independent schools' associations, the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC), Cabinet and the Council of Education Ministers (CEM) decided to delay the reopening, especially since the new variant of the virus in South Africa was said to affect young people.

Making the announcement during a media briefing in Pretoria on Friday, Basic Education Deputy Minister Reginah Mhaule said the decision was taken to give relief to the health system, which was already not coping due to the high number of Covid-19 cases.

But while many independent schools decided to turn to online learning after the opening of schools was postponed, at least one private school in Johannesburg seemed to be an outlier.

READ HERE | New Curro deal: Will struggling private schools have to rely on bigger players to survive?

Helpmekaar Kollege in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, sent a newsletter to parents that all 1 200 pupils should report to school on Monday. In addition, a concert for Grade 8 pupils had been planned for Friday, 22 January, and a choir camp for Saturday and Sunday, 23 and 24 January.

But on Sunday, in an amended notice, Helpmekaar – or Helpies, as it is affectionately known among its pupils and staff – said it had decided to teach its pupils online from Wednesday, 20 January, according to its daily timetable (07:30 to 14:00).

"We want to be sensible in this peak period of Covid ahead and limiting people's risks," the school announced under the heading, "Helpies reconsiders", citing "the latest developments", among other considerations.

It stated that all learning will be presented online from Wednesday. In addition, all planned camps and activities have been postponed until further notice.

'We sensed danger'

Visiting the school on Monday, Lesufi – standing next to Helpmekaar's principal, Klaus König – said the school started its teaching activities last week, before Mhaule's announcement. But, having considered its options, the school had taken the decision to proceed with online learning.

"This weekend, I was flooded with reports that there are schools that believe they should go ahead with... reopening," Lesufi said during a brief media conference following his visit.

READ | Covid-19: SA schools' reopening delayed by two weeks as country fights second wave

"We sensed danger and we felt that we can't just persuade the public education system – we need to also persuade the private education system.

"The reasons are simple. They are in the same communities, their parents are going to buy textbooks and school uniforms – they are going to be up and down.

"It's not about the capability of an institution to manage the virus, it's the movement, because the virus spreads through movement."

ALSO READ | Lockdown: Independent schools turn to online learning

Lesufi added that he had come to learn about Helpmekaar's plans to reopen through the media and decided to engage the school's management to gauge its reasons.

However, König informed Lesufi that the school had since revised its schedule. "As a leader, you revisit your own decision," Lesufi said.

Not an act of defiance

"The school was already open last week. The reopening was not [an act of] defiance. They had already opened. The decision [to postpone reopening] came late, and when the information was brought to [the school's] attention... they reconsidered [it] and they felt they should migrate to online learning."

Lesufi said the postponement came after the Gauteng Education Department wrote to Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, citing concerns about an influx of the province's pupils from other provinces following the holidays.

"Hospital beds are full, both in private and public institutions. Many people were dying. The number [of infections] were increasing."

Lesufi said if they allowed 2.5 million pupils – and by implication their parents – to return to schools in the province, the health system might not be able to cope.

Lesufi also indicated that he had engaged the management of Curro schools as it was also reported that they had planned to re-open today.

"I spoke to the CEO of Curro schools and they have also agreed to retract face-to-face learning. The province is under siege from the Covid-19 virus and we need everyone to play their part," Lesufi said.

Lesufi further indicated that the province was in the process of requesting the department to ensure that the two weeks' delay is gazetted so that the decision becomes law.

"We will retreat for two weeks and monitor the situation; wait for the experts to advice and then make an announcement on whether we return in two weeks or not. Our decision will always be based on sound, scientifically backed advice," he said.

In a statement, Curro spokesperson Mari Lategan confirmed that all their learning would move online.

Curro continues to balance its responsibilities towards its learners, parents, staff and the pressurised health sector, she said.

"We would like to play our part on relieving the pressure on the health system and fight the pandemic."

She said staff would continue to provide a full day’s classes via remote learning, from Monday to Friday, across Grade 1 to 12, nationally.

"This arrangement will remain in place as long as required and regular and constructive engagement with the DBE and other key role-players will continue to ensure Curro’s support in the interest of national health."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a statement from Curro Holdings.

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