WHILE MANY may know me as a political figure in South Africa, I am also a father and an uncle, and I have been very concerned about the rush to reopen schools during an escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa.
At the time of writing this we are now facing the following COVID-19 statistics in the country, 48 285 identified cases and 998 deaths. The curve is not flattening and on the 7th of June alone 2 312 new cases were reported.
At the time of writing this, we are facing winter head-on. It is the season where respiratory diseases spread the most. This is the context in which the schools were reopened by the Department of Basic Education.
This is something that I had spoken out publicly against and even approached the Constitutional Court on an urgent basis about. It turns out my fears were not exaggerated.
Just on the first day we heard different reports which raised significant red flags about our readiness. Mpumalanga Premier Refilwe Mtshweni-Tsipane expressed shock at the lack of readiness of schools in her province. 66 staff members from 55 different schools tested positive for COVID-19 in the Western Cape.
The Emfuleni mayor Gift Moerane was shocked to find that certain schools have no water. Over 100 schools in the KwaZulu Natal province were not reopened along with the others because they do not have any water supply at all. These reports were just the tip of an iceberg when it comes to the state of our schools.
They are indicators that we need to walk with utmost caution along the path to reopening, not rush where angels fear to tread. These are not just my concerns I have been joined by over 190 000 parents, learners and concerned citizens who are worried about the rushed reopening of schools.
They have added their voices to mine by signing a petition which asked the government for restraint and adequate preparation. There are thousands more who feel afraid, angry and concerned that government is acting in a manner that will turn our schools into hotspots and community epicentres.
We have approached this education matter as if we are in an ordinary time, facing an ordinary disruption. In ordinary times, it is indeed important that every learner finishes the academic year, that schools remain open and that our children stay in school. This year however is not an ordinary academic year, by any stretch of the imagination.
While it is important to reopen schools, that move must be made in schools that are safe, sanitary and equal. The rush to complete the academic calendar must not supersede the lives of students, staff and communities.
At all times it is critical that we uphold the constitutional standard when it comes to all affairs that affect our children. Section 28 (2) of the Constitution states that “a child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child”.
This is why we as the One South Africa Movement have called for a delay in the reopening until we can be sure that schools are COVID-19 safe. We are not calling for a closure until a vaccine is found, we are advocating for certain bare minimums to be met. This is neither unreasonable nor unjustifiable.
Our 10-point “Roadmap to Reopening” is as follows:
- Mandatory COVID-19 testing for each teacher, support staff member and learner.
- Testing teachers and all school support staff for underlying health conditions which compromise immunity.
- Daily temperature checks for all people entering the school grounds.
- Safe and adequately ventilated transport for learners.
- Water supply and functional bathrooms for students.
- Adequate personal protective equipment (PPE).
- Weekly disinfection of classrooms.
- Implementation of a rotational class schedule to reduce class sizes.
- Implementation of rotational and supervised break times
- Awareness posters on COVID-19 to be displayed in all schools.
It is no secret that our schools are in a critical state, they are unsafe, unsanitary and unequal. Who can forget the tragic loss of life when five-year-old Michael Komape drowned in a pit latrine. Over the last 26 years we have all witnessed as a nation an education department that failed to deliver to the extent that they had to be taken to court to deliver on the bare minimums.
They have been taken to court for the existence of mud schools, they have been taken to court for the existence of lack of toilets, they have been taken to court for failing to deliver textbooks, they have been taken to court for failing to provide safe learner transport.
An honest assessment of our schools shows that we need to properly address these long festering problems. COVID-19 did not create them, but it did make impossible to move forward without addressing them. It’s clear that a coordinated inter-ministerial plan to fix our schools will take longer than the time that minister Angie Motshekga anticipated. We need three months of focused intervention.
This decision is not just about the learner, it is about our educators too, many of them have underlying high risk comorbidities, diabetes, hypertension, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, to mention but a few.
The average age of a teacher is 43, and 34% percent of our teachers are over the age of 50. It is imperative that teachers be tested for underlying conditions before they are exposed to the school environment. 450 000 tests have to be conducted on underlying conditions as well as COVID-19 itself. Screening alone is not going to be sufficient.
The prioritization of “completing the academic year” cannot supersede or override the necessity for our schools to be safe, sanitary and equal.
We need to stop this dangerous path of action before we lose control. Let’s truly and adequately prepare our schools for the return of students.
- This article was written by Mmusi Maimane, Leader and Founder of One South Africa Movement