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Expert calls for cohesive decision making in reopening of schools

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Teachers, students and parents have had mixed reactions about the reopening of schools on 1st June 2020, as announced by the Education Minister Angie Motshekga this week. The findings of a survey by teachers unions have also thrown a spanner in the works after it found the “vagueness” of Motshekga’s announcements to be problematic. It also revealed that provinces were at different levels of readiness, with the majority ill-prepared to confidently open school doors.

According to Vice-Dean in the Education Faculty at Stellenbosch, Prof Aslam Fataar, government’s insistence of reopening schools amid the pandemic is to allow time for students to be assessed to see whether they can progress to the next grade. He emphasised that parents need to understand the various dynamics and play an active role in decision making.

“Do you try to become a constructive part of that conversation or do you stand along the sidelines and become part of the critics that do?” he questioned.

Fataar stated that before students return schools needs to be able to ensure; a safe learning environment which includes maintaining the behaviour needed for social distancing, reduction in classes and making sure teachers and students have the necessary PPE.

“If we cannot ensure that our schools are safe, clean, secure and sanitized, then our children should not go to school.”

He said that it is “highly unlikely” that the Grade 12 syllabus will be completed before the end of year. He further noted that teacher care should supersede the curriculum. The teachers, he continued, would also be expected to become councillors as well as health screeners. Fataar said that many children will most likely return to school feeling traumatized and that schools need to have the ability to cater to individual psychological and emotional needs.

The questions of ‘can and how’ the screening and monitoring of students will be done is also a “logistical nightmare”, particularly at impoverished schools. Principals need to take the forefront in determining whether or not schools tick all the boxes and governing bodies and teachers need to speak up if they feel that the school needs more time to get ready.

“They have to say at a local level to the MEC of education that ‘we need another week’ and in that do A, B and C. The numbers should be manageable but everyone has to be part of a rational decision.”

The survey by unions including Sadtu, Naptosa and others found that 79% of the respondents reported that they have not received regulations on how to deal with health and safety issues; 60% report that their circuit manager has not yet been in touch with them and 92% of respondents report that offices have not yet been cleaned and sanitized. Fataar also stated that students at 40% of schools in Western Cape rely on the school for a nutritious meal, which also needs to be managed.

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Fataar stated that it’s not possible to have a doctor or nurse at every school. But teachers often have knowledge of healthcare and parents can also be roped in in this regard. Those who have first aid training and are open to training, he suggested, should volunteer to assist.

Parents have also questioned whether all schools should open, including those in “hotspot areas” where there is a high rate of local transmission. Fataar suggested that extra precaution should be taken in these areas.

The professor predicted that when the country eases into Alert Level 3 on June 1st, the Western Cape would be included. But high-risk pockets will be identified and could possibly re-enter a higher Alert level.

Fataar added that unsure parents who intend to keep their children at home, need to do their research and be fully prepared to take on the responsibly and capacitate themselves accordingly. This is a decision needs to be made with eyes open.

“If you want to opt your child out then you have to apply for the home-schooling option officially – you’ll need permission and to fill out some forms. But this means that you have to educate your child at home, education according to legislation has to go on. The Education Department also needs to be understanding and not punish people for doing that but enter into a continuous conversation about what the options are,” he explained.

The academic expressed concern over who would be responsible for cleaning, given that school care takers are often elderly with pre-existing conditions that would make them high-risk. He urged principals to ‘get off their backsides’ and be proactive by rallying assistance.

“You’ve got to start mobilizing your community- parents families to come and clean classrooms once a week (each). It’s that kind of local mobilization that we need. I’m afraid we’re not understanding it that way; we’re sitting on the backfoot waiting for this disease to out-define our behaviour,” he said.

An online petition has called for the Education Minister to revise her decision has meanwhile garnered more than 86k votes. Find it here:

https://www.change.org/p/minister-of-basic-education-let-s-not-gamble-with-our-children-s-lives?recruiter=960639683&utm_source=share_petition&utm_campaign=psf_combo_share_initial&utm_medium=whatsapp&utm_content=washarecopy_22271409_en-GB%3Av12&recruited_by_id=d78cf2f0-76ce-11e9-ac18-910fb3d0e004&use_react=false

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