Charles Molele and Nyakallo Tefu
Department of Basic Education on Wednesday announced guidelines to reduce the risk of coronavirus infection in schools that are scheduled to re-open next week after month-long closures, calling for thorough sanitization of all schools and warning against gathering in cluster groups.
The guidelines also requests compulsory wearing of masks throughout the school day by learners and teachers, including physical distancing in classrooms and total avoidance of hugging, handshaking and direct contact.
If an infection is suspected or detected, the infected learner or staff member will be considered for isolation and testing.
These and other stringent measures were announced on Wednesday by Basic Education Director-General Hubert Mweli during a joint meeting between the portfolio committee on basic education and the select committee on education and technology, sports, arts and culture.
The health and safety measures affects more than 12 million learners in South African public and private schools, and 407 001 educators accounting for 23 076 schools in the country.
Early this week, Inside Education reported that 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.
Mweli said the department will ensure that learners go back to an environment that is safe against any outbreak of COVID-19, which was already claimed 92 lives and infected 4 996 people since the outbreak of the deadly virus since the Spanish flu in 1918.
Mweli further announced a draft amended school calendar for the 2020 academic year, saying teaches would return to school by the 4th of May, with learners back in the classroom on the 6th of May.
According to Mweli’s 50-page COVID-19 Basic Education Sector Plan, the re-opening of schools would be phased in, starting with Grade 7 and Grade 12.
The sector plan stipulates that all learners, educators and support staff will receive orientation and training at the start of the school reopening next week, commencing with Grade 7 and 12.
Teachers and learners will also be screened for temperature checks before the resumptions of classes.
“Grades 12 and Grade 7 are phased in first because these are your older, matured and much more aware learners who’ll have adequate infrastructure in primary and high schools. For younger learners, when they come they’ll help to orientate them,” said Mweli.
While the original school calendar year started on 15 January 2020 and would have ended on 4 December 2020, the amended school calendar will end on 9 December 2020.
Mweli said the grades will be phased-in, starting with Grades 7 and 12.
“The lost school days will be recovered by shortening the June holidays to 5 days and the September holidays to a long weekend in order to make up these days. The 4th term will also be lengthened to close on 9 December 2020 for learners and 11 December 2020 for teachers,” said Mweli.
He said the Grade 12 will be expected to write the set fully fledged examinations, based on covering the entire curriculum and other grades will be given a reworked curriculum and assessed on 80%.
The May-June Exams for the National Senior Certificate (for Grade 12) will now be combined with the October-November Exams and rescheduled for November-December 2020.
In addition to safety measures, content in Life Orientation and Skills will be rearranged to address personal hygiene, self-study skills, emotional and psychological trauma at South African schools.
Every lesson should contribute five minutes teaching awareness on COVID-19, Mweli to the joint portfolio committees in education.
“Before teachers teach, each subject must dedicate 5mins to raise awareness about the Covid-19 pandemic. They should not only hear about the coronavirus during orientation, they should learn about it like other learners did when HIV/AIDS hit the world,” said Mweli.
Basic Education Department also announced that procurement of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) will be centralized as set out by National Treasury regulations.
National Treasury has already contracted the Tshwane-based company Imperial Health Sciences, a decision which has been widely criticized by some in business and government.
IHS is a business unit of logistics giant Imperial South Africa.
The non-executive directors of the multinational company include Phumzile Langeni, Graham Dempster and Peter Cooper.
Langeni is one of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s special investment envoys.
The Portfolio Committee on Basic Education, and the Select Committee on Education and Technology, Sports, Arts and Culture announced on Wednesday afternoon that it welcomed the sector plan and commended the Department of Basic Education for re-opening schools as this would likely also lead the country to get ready and most likely also lead the country to move to a lower level regarding the Covid-19 lockdown.
The portfolio committee’s chairperson Bongiwe Mbinqo-Gigaba said she appreciated the work done by the DBE behind the scenes.
“Please communicate so our people know what is happening. If there are changes, please inform the public. We are all stressed. But we need to work together. Even if our kids go back to school there will be challenges and our responsibility as MPs is to support and assist and report for those challenges to be rectified,” she said after the presentation.
The committee also commended the department for its efforts in getting the sector ready for the start of schooling next month.
This includes providing masks to learners up to quintile 4 and to all teachers, a basic sanitation and hygiene package, mobile facilities to replace pit latrines, cleaners, screening, additional teaching posts as no classes should have more than 40 learners, additional substitute posts, provision of mobile classrooms to deal with overcrowding as a temporary measure, and incubation camps for progressed and weaker learners, especially in Grade 12, she said.
Meanwhile, SA Democratic Teachers Union reiterated its position on Wednesday that no school should be open until all safety concerns were addressed.
“We urged Department to comply with minimum requirements which we articulated in 14 points,” Sadtu said in statement.
“These included among others, the fumigation and disinfection of schools, proper school infrastructure in the form of proper toilet facilities, observance of social distancing inside the classrooms and on court yards, reduction of class sizes, provision of soap, sanitizers and masks, screening of learners, teachers and support personnel, social distancing in transportation of learners to and from schools and provision of psycho-social services.”