NYAKALLO TEFU AND CHARLES MOLELE
The Department of Basic Education (DBE) is adamant that schools will be ready to re-open on June 1st despite fierce opposition by teachers’ unions and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the education sector. The teachers’ unions – SADTU, PEU, NAPTOSA, SAOU and NATU, claimed in a joint statement earlier that they were only told that three provinces – Western Cape, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal – out of nine were ready to reopen in June.
SADTU has previously threatened to withdraw 250 000 from unsafe schools if Basic Education Department failed to meet its non-negotiables, which include the provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for office-based personnel, school-based educators and education support personnel.
In an exclusive interview with Inside Education on Monday, Basic Education’s Director-General Mathanzima Mweli insisted it was all systems go, and that schools will re-open on June 1st under a phased approach, beginning with Grade 7 and Grade 12.
“It can’t be true that only three provinces are ready to re-open. As far as I am concerned all nine provinces are ready to open on June 1st,” Mweli told Inside Education.
“On May 25, all School Management Teams will return to work. They will be followed by learners on June 1. The schools are ready to re-open. They have been fumigated and disinfected. Personal Protective Equipment has been delivered. All school earners will eventually go to school as the National Coronavirus Council drops the lockdown levels.”
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga was expected to address the nation on Monday about the re-opening of schools following engagements with various stakeholders.
KwaZulu-Natal MEC of Education Kwazi Mshengu said on Monday that the province was ready to open by June.
“We have done this in order to allow the space for the deep cleaning and sanitisation of our schools which is part of the non-negotiables agreed to by all stakeholders in the sector,” said Mshengu.
Section 27 spokesperson Julia Chaskalson said civil society organisations are concerned that schools are not ready to be reopened, with reports coming in from a number of provinces that essential personal protective equipment (PPE) and infrastructure for sanitation have not yet been delivered, thus putting learners and school staff at risk.
Chaskalson said following guidelines for school opening set out by the World Health Organisation and the College of Medicine South Africa, SECTION27 field researchers were currently liaising with partner schools in various provinces to survey their readiness to reopen.
“As far as we are concerned schools are not yet ready to re-open because there are 4 000 schools without running water and proper sanitation. Given the backlog of infrastructure, it is highly impossible that the schools will re-open on the first of June,” said Chaskalson.
The Department of Basic Education has released several statements about the phased reopening of schools over the next few weeks.
SECTION27 said DBE should provide full details of the scientific evidence on which the department has relied on before re-opening of schools.
“It is anticipated that the Minister of Basic Education will brief the public on Monday, 18 May 2020 on the dates for the opening of schools and provide details of plans for the opening of schools. These plans must contain hygiene and physical distancing measures to ensure the safety of learners, teachers, and the wider school environment,” said Section 27.
“The measures ought to be informed by the latest available medical evidence. Both the College of Medicine of South Africa and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have published recent guidelines for reducing transmission of COVID-19 in the school environment.”
SECTION27 said it is distributing these guidelines to inform parents, teachers, and learners of the available guidelines and to enable them to better assess measures adopted by the Department of Basic Education for reducing transmission of COVID-19 in the school environment.
“It has been over seven weeks since schools were first closed. While we understand that learners’ usual access to education has necessarily had to be impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown, the DBE is still required to ensure that the limitation on the right to basic education is reasonable and justifiable in terms of the Constitution.”
National Teachers Union’s (NATU) president Allen Thompson said many provinces were still not ready for re-opening of schools because not all the non-negotiables are currently in place.
“Ten days ago most of the provinces were not ready and we even checked on the ground and could see that things were not ready,” said Thompson.
“At some point the provinces that we had knowledge that they were ready was Gauteng and the Western Cape, but they were also intending to use teachers for screening of learners and intending to use ordinary staff members to do the cleaning in the school which is something we objected on. Gauteng was indicating that they had not received enough masks, which indicated that they were also not ready for their systems to take off. In the Western Cape, most of the schools that had been vandalized had not been fixed, which also show that they were not ready.”
President of NAPTOSA Basil Manuel said to the best of his knowledge there is no province that is completely ready to open in June.
“We do a morning survey where we test in the different districts what the level of readiness is, certainly in all the provinces excluding Gauteng and Western Cape we have had a virtual indication that they are not ready at all,” said Manuel.
“In fact some provinces sent out letters yesterday to indicate that School Management Teams must not report for duty. In the Western Cape there are large swabs of districts that have indicated that they received the necessary stuff for them to be declared ready for the SMT’s to be there and start meeting. However, a number of schools in the Western Cape particularly in the Southern Cape have indicated that they received nothing. In Gauteng the province did not indicate what has been delivered, so people are all excited, yet this is not sufficient. In other provinces it is a battle as some districts have not been open. Some head offices have very skeletal staff. In our electronic survey, which ends this afternoon, it will give us a clear indication of the level of readiness in each province.”