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Teacher Unions Lambast Ramaphosa For Failing To Address School Closures Despite COVID-19 Storm

INSIDE EDUCATION REPOTERS

TEACHER unions have lambasted President Cyril Ramaphosa for failing to address school closures during his live address on Sunday night despite raising concerns about the skyrocketing and alarming rate of infections in COVID-19 cases.

During his address, Ramaphosa announced the reintroduction of a number of lockdown restrictions as the country grapples with rising coronavirus cases, saying the COVID-19 storm “is far fiercer and more destructive than any we have known before.”

The unions have slammed Ramaphosa for failing to deal with school closures once and for all, saying they have gathered new evidence that shows that schools in South Africa shouldn’t be allowed to reopen because it is now clear that the pandemic is not under control.

The SA Democratic Teachers Union on Tuesday called on Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga to close all schools until after the COVID-19 peak.

“The situation is dire. We as an organisation cannot continue to send messages of condolences to families. The rate of community transmissions are impacting on schooling,” said Maluleke after the union’s special national executive committee meeting on Tuesday.

Since the reopening of schools in June 2020, more than 200 schools have been forced to close after 2 740 teachers and 1 260 learners were infected by the virus.

The Educators Union of South Africa (EUSA) said the major outbreaks at schools were now inevitable because the virus was at its peak as earlier predicted by modellers and scientists, and that there was a likelihood that more learners, teachers and staff will now bring COVID-19 into their classrooms.

“We are very disappointed, especially after the President’s address on Sunday for failing to education matters and school closures,” said EUSA co-founder Kabelo Matlhobogoane.

“This is proof teachers are not highly valued in South Africa. The teaching fraternity is angry and feels betrayed by President Ramaphosa because he missed a golden opportunity to bring sanity and calm to the nation that is on a high panic alert as COVID-19 infections escalate.”

Matlhobogoane accused Ramaphosa of deliberately ignoring the facts on the ground about the rising infections at schools and the failure of government to contain the disease, including providing water and sanitation.

“We have seen in Gauteng several Grade 7 learners under the age of 9 who died from COVID-19. But it does not end there. Even officials of the Department of Basic Education have died from the virus. More than 30 teachers have died so far. Instead of addressing all of this, the President blamed the community. He blamed people who are victims at this stage,” he said.

Teacher unions believe that with the current infection rates in South Africa, schools should likely stay shut until the danger of COVID-19 has passed.

On Thursday July 9, Sadtu wrote a letter to Motshekga requesting an urgent meeting to address the alarming increases in infections.

The special NEC meeting will be held virtually on Tuesday at 10am.

It will be followed by a media briefing at 1pm.

“[We would like to discuss with the minister] about the Department of Basic Education’s Response Strategy to the new body of evidence that the virus is airborne and the spikes in infections,” said Mugwena Maluleke, Sadtu’s general secretary in the letter.

“We refer to the above matter and request an urgent meeting to deal with the new body of evidence as published by a number of reputable journals and the WHO. We further wish to bring to your attention the spikes in infections in our institutions. The schools are trying under difficult conditions to comply and coordinate with the compliance officers, but are finding it difficult to cope.”

“The schools that experience cases are sometimes left to operate for more than three days waiting for the compliance officers or the Department of Health to help. This is traumatising the heads of institutions and the circuit officials who end up taking matters into their own hands to deal with such complex matters.”

Maluleke added: “The situation warrants a national response because we have learned that after your pronouncements some provinces will deviate from your directions in matters of health and safety. We have learned during this period that some provinces are providing just one mask per learner despite them having told you that they were ready for all the grades that were published in your earlier directions.”

The Athlone Teachers’ Group’s Clement Meyer said the meeting between Sadtu and Basic Education Minister on Tuesday should address the closure of schools with immediate effect. 

“We disagree with the unions’ reluctance to campaign to shut down schools. There must be a shutdown now. What we are saying is that it is suicidal for us to continue and putting our learners and teachers at risk. The movement of people is causing the virus to spread and schools cause people to move on a daily basis, which will in turn affect communities,” said Meyer.

Jonavon Rustin, Sadtu’s provincial secretary in the Western Cape, said the union was deeply concerned about the infection numbers in schools and that the personal protective equipment (PPE) was insufficient.

“As Sadtu Western Cape we have always said that when the peak reaches our areas, whether it’s the province or the country, we need to ensure that schools are not opened so we can protect the movement of people around. That includes learners and teachers so that we contain the spread of the disease and also ensure that both learners and teachers are safe,” said Rustin.  

“We need to ensure that all protocols are in place at schools. We are deeply worried about the infection rate, including in education institutions because on a daily basis schools are opening and closing and this is causing huge anxiety among teachers, learners and parents. Therefore, SADTU had called on the minister for an urgent meeting. We hope the meeting will be convened soon so that the new evidence can be discussed with the Minister.” 

Executive director of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa (Naptosa) Basil Manuel, however, believes the idea of completely shutting down schools would be impossible at this stage. 

Sadtu has called for an urgent meeting with Motshekga, failing which the union would have no choice but to take action against the minister.

The story has been updated.

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