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The department of basic education (DBE) has been warned that thousands of South Africa’s schools may not be ready to reopen under government’s operating guidelines, despite government making a last-minute postponement to the early May reopening dates for teachers and later, pupils.
The DBE and its minister, Angie Motshekga, have a difficult task ahead, preparing schools to operate amid fears of a surge in Covid-19 infections.
According to the Governing Body Foundation, many public schools were not in a position to provide the necessary space for social distancing, despite the plan to gradually phase in two grades at a time. Classrooms were simply not big enough, while other schools did not have enough classrooms.
The Foundation’s CEO Anthea Cerestero said she understood the pressure on government to act fast, but urged for schools to be allowed flexibility in terms of the time it would realistically take to be ready.
“We have made our concerns known when we were participating in the consultation with the Department of Education on Sunday. The presentation we saw today was basically the same except the changes in certain dates. It was clear to us then that government may not quite have the implementation readiness required for this,” said Cerestero.
Sadtu won’t play ball
As the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) continued to threaten it would not allow schools to reopen until their concerns around school readiness were met, Ceresero suggested even government might not have accurately calculated how schools would be prepared to reopen in the next two weeks. Among the urgent measures to be put in place in the country’s 25,000 public schools, was that over 3,000 schools were to receive upgrades to water and sanitation access.
“There may be some theoretical documents on the standard operating practices for hygiene and sanitation, and instructional videos on how to do those things, but how to implement those rules under various circumstances is going to be very difficult. The plan may not fit all of the schools by the dates that have been set. The state of readiness in some schools may be satisfactory while [not] in other schools.”
Sadtu remained resolute in its reaction to Wednesday’s pronouncements.
“SADTU stands firm on its position which was articulated on Friday that no school shall open until our concerns are met,” Sadtu general secretary Mugwena Maluleke said in a statement.
This after the union gave government homework to address 14 points on the readiness of schools including the fumigation and disinfection of schools, proper school infrastructure in the form of proper toilet facilities, observance of social distancing inside classrooms, protective gear and scholar transport. But the union threw another curve ball at the department.
“If Stage 4 regulations are to be adhered to, there should be no re-opening of schools under Stage 4. The Minister should meet with stakeholders before any announcement is made and after making sure that the Department of Health has expertly assessed the risks,” Maluleke said.
The department’s apparent suggestion that South Africa faced minimal risk of the virus spreading in large numbers at schools was met with concern and anger. This after government’s presentation to parliament yesterday included reference to the recorded contribution to the infection rate by schools in other countries.
“We reject importing the Taiwan, China, Denmark and Singapore misrepresentation by the Director General. The context and culture are not the same. We must use our context, culture and data to inform our actions,” said Maluleke.
Legal options for teachers?
It also seems teachers may have a hard time suing their employer if they catch the coronavirus at work, a lawyer says.
Teachers, mainly represented by Sadtu, raised concerns last week that the premature reopening of schools following the protracted lockdown could risk the lives of teachers and pupils.
But legal expert Victor Nkhwashu said making the case for a claim under the The Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act could prove difficult for teachers. When schools reopen and gradually, teachers and pupils return.
“While it has been said scientifically that children’s immune systems are better at fighting this disease, when the teachers come they will be at a risk, because the children may be carrying it in their books and so on,” said Nkhwashu.
“But because we are talking about a virus here that can be found on surfaces and so on, it will be very difficult to prove that the disease was not contracted in various ways at home and elsewhere.”
The attorney added, though, he may not likely turn down a client who wanted to lodge such a claim because every case would have to be reviewed on its own merits.
NGOs question how government will overcome years of continuous failure
Meanwhile, the department faced heavy criticism from advocacy groups who were concerned that government might not be prepared for the task of preventing the spread of this disease during the school year. Legal advocacy NGOs released a joint statement yesterday saying authorities had not convincingly demonstrated that all schools would be provided with the necessary resources and support to reopen.
Equal Education (EE), the Equal Education Law Centre (EELC), and Section27 said they were deeply concerned that the list of non-negotiables to prevent the spread of Covid-19 which would be in place by next Wednesday might not be met in time.
They pointed out, for instance, that government’s plan to provide for classrooms to have no more than 40 pupils per classroom required government to implement a policy which was already in place and which it had failed for years to follow.
“The Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure provide the number of learners per classroom under usual circumstances should be 40. The DBE’s plans are therefore simply planning on the basis of what would be required under normal circumstances.”
The new requirements would also warrant more classrooms and more teachers for each school which did not already meet these requirements.
Human rights group Amnesty International urged for the rights of children and educators to be prioritised.
“We acknowledge that these are uncertain and difficult times for everyone, including for the DBE, but this pandemic is not only a health crisis, but a human rights crisis, and it has emphasised once more that the right to quality education must be defended now and into the future,” the group’s statement read.
Its February report highlighted that, out of 23,471 public schools, 4,358 still had only illegal pit latrines for sanitation, and 37 schools had no sanitation facilities whatsoever.
Field research by the group found some schools lack both decent sanitation and a reliable water supply.
“At a time when access to water and sanitation is of utmost importance to stay healthy, the lack of this essential provision in schools is deeply worrying.”
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