by Tauhierah Salie
The Western Cape Education Department’s decision to reopen schools on June 1st has received heavy criticism from teacher unions, with the SA Human Rights Commission threatening legal action. It follows a postponement of a press briefing by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga at the weekend, who had last week pronounced that schools should reopen on June 1st.
Speaking on VOC’s Breakfast Beat on Monday morning, Naptosa executive director Basil Manuel explained that it had been a laborious weekend for education stakeholders who had been engaged in talks over school readiness. Manuel explained that teacher unions and governing body associations put their concerns to the minister and director general on Friday and it was then suggested that these needed to be escalated. They then met with the Council of Education Ministers (CEM) which entailed teacher unions, national school governing body associations, the principals’ association, NGOs responsible for learners with special needs, assessment bodies, associations of independent schools, and other stakeholders with a direct interest in basic education, on Saturday.
Manuel explained that their concerns over a lack of readiness were based on research that showed that many schools weren’t ready, despite a “major shift” compared to previous surveys and that “a lot more had been accomplished” since then. He added that the South African Human Rights Commission’s point which reiterated that schools should remain closed until all had the capability of reopening safely.
The Minister had, according to Manual and a statement she released on Sunday, admitted that the Department of Education’s own surveys reflected similar results. Manuel emphasised that the attendees were “at one” that schools could not reopen on Monday and that the minster would not be “announcing a date but rather a time needed to ready the system.”
In a joint statement, NAPTOSA, the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu), National Teachers Union (Natu), Professional Educators Union (Peu) and Suid Afrikaanse Onderwysers Unie (Saou) all agreed that the announcement of the 8th of June came as a surprise.
But, the WCED had on Sunday released a statement expressing that it will go ahead with the reopening of schools on Monday 1st. In a statement by Education MEC Debbie Schafer, the department said that given the immense amount of effort put into getting schools ready, a delay in reopening would be “unfair”. Schafer described schools- including those in poorer communities – as “overwhelmingly ready”, citing expenditure of R280 million on personal protective equipment and the delivery of 2.4 million masks, 7000 non-contact thermometers and millions of liters in hand sanitizer, liquid soap, disinfectant and bleach.
WCED spokesperson Bronagh Hammond told VOC News that they too were awaiting clarity on Sunday evening and were hoping not to create any confusion. She said that the decision was made to go ahead with their plan to reopen “in line with the government gazette”, noting their participation in meeting where the province had indicated its readiness.
“Yes, there is going to be some teething problems. There might be some schools that we are not aware of that haven’t received the masks. We believe we have distributed everything accordingly.”
According to Hammond, the phased in approach allows the number of students to be drastically reduced with more teachers at hand to control the situation.
“It is good that we’re getting some schooling back into the system so that we can see how this works with reduced numbers and I’m confident that it would work. I’ve seen some of the plans that schools have put in place and they were ready not even last week, but the week before.”
“We feel strongly that we have prepared accordingly and, yes, there will be some schools that are not prepared for various reasons,” admitted Hammond, adding however that schools had ample time to prepare.
“We are aware that some schools have reported Covid-19 cases and they are cleaning those schools as per the requirement and they may open tomorrow or the next day. The head of department is the only one that can decide that the school is closed,” she said.
According to Hammond, “a lot of learners and teachers were happy” to be returning to school. When questioned about the schools that are not prepared, she explained that where “PPE has not been delivered, those schools have the right to apply to not open their schools.”
But Habibia primary schools SGB chairperson Nadeem Hendricks said that there was too much uncertainty and the research pointed to the province reaching its peak next month, meant they would not be reopening. According to him, the majority of parents felt uncertain and anxious and said they won’t be sending children back. He explained that objective of the decision was to find “common ground not only in the Western Cape but nationally as well”.
This was echoed by Naptosa and the aforementioned teacher unions, who criticized the Western Cape government for the move.
“We all knew what it wasn’t going to be 1st June. It is disingenuous for the province to just decide ‘well it was gazetted; we’re going to go ahead’. We were in the same meeting and they knew, as well as (how) we knew, that this date was not a date that was acceptable any longer,” said Manuel.
“The attitude of the Western Cape to define itself outside the collective must not be allowed. South Africa is one country and their insistence to go it alone undermines the unitary nature of our education system,” reiterated a joint statement by several teacher unions.
Schools in the province were instructed to open their doors and accept students despite Covid-19 not having reached its peak yet, for parents in the Mitchells Plain area the confusion around whether or not to send their children back to school has left a bitter taste in their mouths.
An anonymous dad aired his grievances citing the naivety of children around the disease.
“How can you expect a child that hasn’t seen their friends for over two months to contain their excitement and maintain social distancing. If the government isn’t brave enough to open a restaurant, why would they think it’s okay to open up schools,” asked the dad.
Another parent said he was left with no choice but to put his faith in God.
“I am anxious but I am left without options. My daughter will have to go back eventually, I am just putting my trust in the Almighty that she will be okay and adhere to the rules and regulations,” smiled the worried parent.
However, a principal in the Manenberg area said it didn’t make any sense that the department of education has shut schools before any institutions had seen any cases but now are keen on opening them up when cases are rife.
“The Western Cape hasn’t experienced its peak, it is illogical to reopen schools. We are doing what we can with what we have, it is not the idea situation but with the economy opening on level 3, who will safe guard the children, if not schools, in poverty stricken areas,” asked the principal.
Manuel added that the goal was to allow the entire system to reopen “leave no school behind is the motto” – an ideal he described as noble and attainable. The “petty politics at play”, he said, is inexplicable “especially since we are appealing for better sense.”
He added however, that it was equally disappointed in Motshekga’s lack of leadership and that the minister’s postponement “created the room for this to happen”.
Both the DA and EFF also accused Motshekga of failing in her duties, with the EFF emphasising that a week would not make much difference.
“The last-minute postponement reveals a government that is not in touch with the Basic Education sector. Angie Motshekga and her department are fostering confusion in South Africa and have shown that they lack the capacity to lead the ministry. They must stop using our children as guinea pigs during this crisis.”
Following at least four postponements, which Motshekga profusely apologized for in her address to the media late Monday morning, the minister noted that the level of readiness was not the same across the country and that the main priority is ensuring that the coronavirus does not spread within school.
Motshekga said the delays were beyond her control because extra consultations were necessary, adding that she was hopeful that the remaining week could be used to induct teachers and some students and allow schools to ready themselves.
She added that parents who keep their children at home must apply to the principal or head of department for home-schooling or exemption, as to not infringe on their right to education.
The SAHRC commissioner Andre Gaum is quoted as saying that the commission’s survey revealed that at least 20% of schools in the Western Cape aren’t ready.