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Government Urged To Limit Re-opening of Schools To Grade 12 Learners Only

Nyakallo Tefu

About 11 million South African learners might have to spend the rest of the 2020 Curriculum year doing online learning if a proposal by education stakeholders and senior government officials is endorsed by the National Coronavirus Command Council on Wednesday.

Disagreements over whether or not to allow all learners to return to school on May 6 has forced the Departments of Basic and Higher Education to twice postpone the scheduled meetings meant to announce the decision on Friday and Monday. 

While Basic Education Department has proposed a phase-in approach in a leaked confidential document labelled Framework for a Curriculum Recovery Plan- Post Covid19 that will see only Grade 7 and Grade 12 returning to school on May 6, an increasing number of stakeholders, including senior government officials have warned against allowing lower grade learners back in the classroom at the height of the pandemic, saying the action would put the lives of many learners at risk.

The number of COVID-19 cases in South Africa is rising rapidly across the country, even as the whole country is quiet and under lockdown.

By Monday this week, the number of Covid-19 cases in South Africa has increased to 4 793 and the death toll had also risen to 90. 

Gauteng (1 353), KwaZulu Natal (902) and the Western Cape (1 737) are the hardest hit, with a total number of 3 992 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Monday evening.

Government insiders have told Inside Education that Gauteng is one of the provinces that have opposed proposals to re-open schooling for all learners at a go, as this would put the safety of learners at risk.

“Safety first. That’s our approach,” said a senior Gauteng Education official, who asked to remain anonymous.

He added: “We can regain the curriculum, but unfortunately we can’t regain a life. My worry is that parents can pressurise us about kids, but if one child dies or one child gets this thing [Coronavirus], we are going to be in trouble. We can only risk with matriculants. We can’t risk with others at lower grades. We honestly can’t,” said the senior Gauteng Education official. 

The official said the only reason Gauteng would agree that the Grade 12 learners go back to school was due to the fact that if they don’t, this will cause a serious logistical backlog for government. 

“There might be a generation that will not go to school and you don’t want that because if Grade 12s are still within the system you can’t have Grade 1. These things are interlinked. He said unlike Grade 7s, the Grade 12 would be able to exercise social distance,” said the senior government official.

“At least Grade 12s are adults. You can argue that they know the basics of social distancing and washing hands. But Grade 7s are still young,” said the senior Gauteng official.

National Teachers Union’s president Allen Thompson said his organization was opposed to universal opening of schools.

“We have recommended to the department not to open all classes but just for the matriculants as they will be able to take instruction,” said Thompson.  

“NATU is calling for Grade 12s to be prioritized because we believe they have capacity to follow health guidelines. Grade 7s are still young they won’t follow instructions.”

Thompson said while the teacher union could guarantee the safety of Grade 12s, it believed that Grade 12 learners were old enough to observe social distancing protocols.

“Remember that  we are not sure if Grade 12’s will be safe if they go back to school but they will be able to follow instructions as they are ready to go to tertiary institutions and even the work environment.  We believe they value life more than those coming from lower grades, they know that they are almost done. We believe they will subscribe to the precautions,” he said.

 Thompson said if they go back to classes, Grade 12 learners will be bale to subscribe to ‘necessary’ precautions as required by government.  

SA Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) has meanwhile called on government to ensure that all safety measures are put in place two weeks before schools, universities and TVET colleges are re-opened.

“The first priority is the safety of all our learning institutions because we cannot afford to lose lives. Corpses can neither be taught nor teach”, said SADTU in a statement.

SADTU said it was, above all, ‘deeply’ concerned about the safety of teachers, lecturers, education support personnel, school learners and students.

“Above all, we are concerned about the readiness of the provincial departments with regard to the availability of health and safety essentials that have to be put in place in the learning institutions at least two weeks before any activity can take place,” it said.

“We have the right to be concerned because Alert 4 Level requires honesty, transparency and accuracy regarding readiness with precautionary measures. We are raising these things because our sister Union, DENOSA has raised these matters and provinces concealed the facts about their readiness until the Minister of Health was shocked when he visited one of the hospitals in the Eastern Cape. We believe education is an enabler. However, it can only be effective in a conducive and safe environment.”

Basic Education spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga has apologized for twice postponing the joint media briefing by the Departments of Basic Education and Higher Education.

“The education media briefing scheduled for tomorrow [Monday] has been postponed. We will issue a media statement soon. Apologies for the inconvenience caused,” said Mhlanga.

He said the debate and discussion on the postponed media briefing has been noted.

“We are tracking the infection rate of the Coronavirus. We are monitoring the behavior of people in relation to the regulations. We said from the start that compliance with regulations would determine the next course of action. Decisions on education are based on the assessment done daily. Whatever criticism you level against the Department do keep in mind that we are dealing with a dangerous virus which has killed people already,” said Mhlanga.

“We need to remember also that the Department had NEVER published a date for the reopening of schools. The anxiety is caused by fake news and leaked discussion documents. That context is critical, never lose sight of the fact that the COVID-19 is a new situation and we have no previous experience on it. The anxiety is understandable because this matter has got to do with people’s lives.”

Mhlanga explained that the Department is one of many other departments that are affected by the current situation.

“Cool heads are required at the moment, we need to make decisions based on scientific evidence. Those who insult us we really must understand, it’s probably the stress. There are parents who say children must go back to school and then you have others who say it’s dangerous to go back now.
We are in a situation where we are expected to reconcile clashing views into a position that will serve the interest all people. Let’s allow the National Coronavirus Command Council to deliberate on these matters and lead us. This is national matter that affects a whole range of stakeholders, not just for one Department. There will be a media briefing soon.”

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