/ 15 March 2020

Ramaphosa closes schools as country grapples with coronavirus

General Electric Upgrade At Tushanang Primary School, Landscaping
Schools will be closed from March 18 due to the coronavirus outbreak.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has the buy-in of teachers’ unions for the dramatic measures announced on Sunday evening, including the imminent closure of all schools.

The president announced that schools will close two days early for the Easter break and will remain closed until after the Easter weekend. 

Initially schools were supposed to be closed on March 20 and open on March 31. But with the country grappling with Covid-19, and with 61 cases confirmed so far, the government has had to take drastic measures. 

“To compensate, the mid-year school holidays will be shortened by a week,” said Ramaphosa. 

The South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) general secretary Mugwena Maluleke told the Mail & Guardian on Sunday evening that the union appreciates the decisive action taken by the government. He said the worry was that no one knows how many learners have been exposed to people who have tested positive for the virus, and it was for this reason that children should rather be safe at home. 

When news of the first person who tested positive for the virus broke two weeks ago, a school in Hilton, KwaZulu-Natal shut down for a few days because the infected man’s children attended it. However, his children have since tested negative for the virus. 

Shortly afterwards, another school in Sandton, Johannesburg also closed down for a day after it emerged that one of its staff members had been in contact with a person who had tested positive for the virus. 

Maluleke said that Sadtu is meeting the department of basic education director general, Mathanzima Mweli, on Tuesday. At this meeting they will discuss intervention methods to make up the teaching time that will be lost. 

He said the teachers’ union had set up the meeting before Ramaphosa’s announcement because it wanted to discuss measures that would be taken should schools be closed because of the virus. “This is a decision about our lives and we have to appreciate that. Already other governments have closed schools. If you take Kenya, if you take Palestine, last week already they announced the closure of schools.”

Kenya announced on Sunday afternoon that all its schools are closed indefinitely. The country has recorded three positive cases of the coronavirus. 

The bigger picture

National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa (Naptosa) executive director Basil Manuel said it is only fair to respect the rules set by the government in the interests of a greater group. “There is little value in complaining about little inconveniences about travel arrangements during the June holidays; those are insignificant when one looks at the bigger picture.”

He said teachers should instead use these last three school days to make sure that every child is educated, and that children are given pamphlets to take home to assist in educating the people about the virus. 

Manuel said one area of concern, especially for primary-school children, is that most of them depend on the school-nutrition programme and might go hungry while schools are closed for a long period. “So, I am worried about those things, but they become insignificant: it does not help getting the food and getting sick. This is the time to come together and stand together to deal with a common threat.” 

Secretary of the National Association of School Governing Bodies Matakanye Matakanye said these are difficult times and parents need to adhere to the government’s rules. He added that while children are at home parents need to make sure that they children are safe and do not contract the virus — following guidelines set by the department of health. 

Meanwhile, Ramaphosa has said Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande will meet vice-chancellors of colleges and universities and will soon be making an announcement about the sector. 

Chief executive of Universities South Africa (Usaf) — an association of universities — Professor Ahmed Bawa, told the M&G on Sunday evening that the body will be meeting with Nzimande this week. He said that Usaf has already held meetings with the department of health and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases to discuss how to address the virus. He said the aim of the meeting with Nzimande will be to develop a sectoral approach. 

As it is, most universities have postponed their graduation ceremonies, cancelled conferences and instituted travel bans for non-essential travel, said Bawa. “The big question is going to be, if there is a spread of the virus on our campuses, whether we then shut down the campuses and move on the online learning. We are working on that.”

Bawa said universities are also looking at alternative approaches for those staff and students who might not be able to participate in distance or electronic learning. He said these include constant communication between lecturers and students through email, and having a cloud that will allow students to access information. He said there were also discussions with cellphone-network companies about making it affordable for students to access data should campuses be closed because of the virus. 

Already one student has tested positive at University of the Witwatersrand. After this, the university announced on Sunday evening that all contact teaching, university activities involving face-to-face interaction, and tests have been postponed, and that students are requested to remain home or confine themselves to their rooms in residences.