As calls mount for schools in the Western Cape to be closed, the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) maintained that it has covered all its bases. On Tuesday, parents, teachers and students held peaceful picket in Athlone, while various schools in Ravensmead, Elsies River and Belhar did the same on Monday. Demonstrators had demanded that schools in the province be shutdown on the grounds that many are not equipped to keep the school environment free of Covid-19.
It comes as South Africa prepares to reach its peak in infections, with over 66 700 cases as of 29 June 2020. The Basic Education Department had also revealed that nationally, more than 1 700 cases have been reported at South African schools since grades 7 and 12 returned at the start of the month. The Western Cape hosts the majority of these cases, with 134 learners and 557 staff members.
Last Tuesday, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga gazetted directions about the re-opening of schools for other grades following the return of grades seven and 12 earlier this month. She announced that pre-grade R and grades R, one, two, three, six, 10 and 11 will return on the 6th of next month, as well as learners of special schools. The rest of the learners are expected to return August 3rd. Motshekga reiterated that only schools that have complied with the minimum health, safety and social distancing protocols will be allowed to open.
However, mother Zoraya Du Plessis, a participant in one of many demonstrations across the Cape Metro had last week highlighted a sentiment shared by many parents; who equate sending their children back to school to “sending them into the battlefield to become statistics”.
“Government is being selfish to open school. what will happen next is our children will become coronavirus statistics. It’s unfair. children should be focused on their future not the threat of Covid-19. They didn’t ask for (this) and they must sit with the stress,” said Du Plessis.
Last week, The Bishop Lavis Action Community (BLAC) had held one of many demonstrations making the same call, highlighting concerns such as inadequate infrastructure, a lack of psyco-social support and insufficient monitoring of protocol adherence.
“We told the students; it’s your decision because it’s your life on the line. It is for the WCED to say ‘we will do this’ or we will do that’- but so far, they haven’t come to the party. They’re putting things on paper but they’re not checking that its actually being done,” said BLAC Media Liaison, Amanda Davids.
The Movement had developed what it deemed the framework of a “community action plan” which could be implemented in the event that the 2020 academic year is suspended. Among the proposals would be for the all grades 1-11 to be promoted and taught a combined syllabus to make up for lost time and for matrics to be graded according to their final grade 11 exam, with universities accepting students through bridging classes.
“We don’t have all the answers but there is an action plan and we will help. We have a lot of street committees that are committed. We aren’t saying students mustn’t learn, they must. But they must return safely,” added Davids.
Malika Swail, the Elsies River High matric pupil who recently wrote to President Cyril Ramaphosa demanding an intervention, told VOC that the WCED hasn’t helped with the ongoing fear of both teachers and students, who are under added stress since matrics “are still expected to write a full-scale exam knowing how much time we lost already”.
Meanwhile, spokesperson to WC Education MEC Debbie Schafer Kerry Mauchline, stated that follow up materials will soon be provided and that consultation with schools where protocols are reportedly not followed are ongoing. Mauchline also condemned reports that teachers are being intimidated by protestors, noting that denying students and teachers access to schools infringes on their right to education. the spokesperson also noted that the affected schools are often where there are a high rate of community transmission – “in the hotspot areas, so it is to be expected.”
“For us, one case is too many cases and I think that’s the case for all provinces where it’s not that we think its fine that people are being infected. But, at present, schools that have reported a positive case are only reporting one or two. We’re not seeing evidence of a mass spread, generally,” she told VOC Breakfast Beat on Monday.
Mauchline noted that ¾ of schools have not detected cases, and that where there are more than two; it requires close inspection to see if protocols are being followed.
“Protocols are going to be 100% more important when we have all the grades coming back. This is the real defense; to make sure we follow the health and hygiene protocols and that we’re quite strict about those. It takes a certain level of responsibly.”
She further noted that the delivery of follow-up materials is nearing 70% completion. The spokesperson also alleged that teachers are being threatened and intimidated to stop teaching but declined the opportunity to provide specific details.
“That kind of thing is really not okay and we are following up each and every one of those reports with SAPS,” she said.
Several more demonstrations were planned for the rest of the week; where parents, teachers and students have raised grievances around the departments approach to ensuring compliance.