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Going back to school in the pandemic: ‘We are going to live on prayer’

MPs have questioned the department of basic education’s readiness to reopen schools, with some calling the plan rushed, and others questioning whether it is wise to open schools.

This is after the department’s director general, Mathanzima Mweli, presented a plan for schooling during Covid-19 to the portfolio committee on basic education on Wednesday.

Schools went on early recess on March 18, before President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a lockdown. In its presentation, the department said its provisional plan was that different grades return to school at different times, with grades 7 and 12 back as soon as May 6, and other grades going back closer to July.

Later, when answering questions from MPs, deputy minister Reginah Mhaule said this was no longer the reopening date, as the social cluster committee had rejected it as not being practical. She did not give a new date. This will be provided by minister Angie Motshekga in a briefing today.

School principals and management teams will, however, go back to schools on May 4 to ready schools for learners and to receive sanitisers and personal protective equipment.

The plan states that schools and classrooms will be sanitised before opening. When grades seven and 12 return to school, learners and teachers will be screened and those that present a high temperature will be considered for isolation and testing.

However, teachers unions are pushing back against any plans to reopen schools before safety measures are in place. They argue that for years the education system has failed to achieve its own targets of improving the infrastructure needed to teach and now, with the coronavirus pandemic, it is trying to rush this.

Before the virus struck, basic needs — water, clean and adequate sanitation, and enough classrooms — were in short supply at many schools. It is now seven years since the minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure came into law, and four years after the department set itself a deadline to fix schools that didn’t meet the standards.

Briefing Parliament’s basic education portfolio committee in October, the department said the largest number of its self-set targets for 2019-20 were related to toilets, water and additional classrooms. Its Infrastructure Delivery Management Systems Report, released the previous month, laid out the scale of the problems. In terms of the improvement of sanitation facilities, the department said this had been completed at 103 of 776 schools. For the provision and upgrading of water, 91 of 515 schools were given this service. And only 158 out of 1020 additional classrooms had been provided.

Teachers who spoke to the Mail & Guardian shared how they teach overcrowded classes, which would pose major problems for social distancing.

A KwaZulu-Natal primary school teacher said she doesn’t see how physical distancing can happen in her classrooms. She teaches two classes and they each have more than 90 learners.

An Eastern Cape high school  teacher said he has 80 children in one of his classes. “Social distancing is going to be a problem because in our classes we have more than 50 learners sitting like sardines,” he said.

“We are going to live on prayer because the department will never be able to fix the challenges of overcrowding. It is too late for them to fix that now.”

National Teachers’ Union President Allen Thompson told the M&G this week that one principal at a school in KwaZulu-Natal said he had more than 500 grade 12 learners and, there were at least 80 learners in each of the 11 grade 12 classes.

In its presentation to Parliament, the department said it will provide mobile classrooms to limit overcrowding, because there should not be more than 40 learners in a class. It also said it will be hiring more teachers to deal with overcrowding.

The department also said there will be no more than two learners sharing a desk as an additional measure to achieve physical distancing. Because of the lack of furniture and overcrowding, as many as four to five learners share a desk in some schools.

The department has also said that it will provide water and sanitation to the schools that do not have these basic services. A 2018 audit into school sanitation by the department revealed that there are more than 3000 schools in the country with pit latrines, and in January the department said only 266 of these had been provided with better sanitation.

In its briefing, the department said there were 3500 schools that had been identified as needing water and that it was working with the department of water and sanitation to get water tanks installed at the schools and for water to be delivered.

Some members of the portfolio committee expressed their doubt in the department’s “sudden” capacity to deal with long-standing issues.

“Social distancing is going to be a problem. I am not asking, I am saying … We heard that classes will be supplied in the form of prefabs and I am saying we are actually exposing the country to a serious risk. We have to prepare for that risk when it happens, because immediately the kids go back to school these nice stories will definitely not happen,” said Democratic Alliance National Council of Provinces delegate Mbulelo Bara.

Basil Manuel, the executive director of the National Professional Teachers Organisation of South Africa, told the M&G that problems of overcrowding, inadequate water provision and the poor standard of toilets at schools are not new. “But Covid has embarrassed us. It has exaggerated the problems,” he said.

Teachers unions have also said they have no faith that provincial departments are ready for the resumption of the school year. And, even though it is the basic education department that decides when schools will reopen, it will be the provinces that have to implement that decision.

Thompson said at the first meeting with the education department after Ramaphosa announced the lockdown, the procurement of personal protective equipment for schools before they reopen was discussed. But, said Thompson, some provinces put in orders for protective equipment only last week.

“It means if the president did not extend the lockdown [in mid-April], schools were going to open without the sanitisers being bought and delivered to individual schools,” he said. Manuel said this was just one example of how provinces were not ready to reopen schools.

On Wednesday the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union also said that “no schools shall open until” its concerns about safety in schools are met. These concerns include the provision of proper toilet facilities and classrooms, as well as schools being fumigated.

Education expert Professor Mary Metcalfe said the national department will have to have strong monitoring systems to know what is being implemented in the different provinces for its plans to succeed.

Metcalfe also said that the department will need to work with scientists to determine the effects of opening schools. She said it cannot make the assumptions that children are not getting infected at the same rate, or with the same severity, as adults.

“Education needs a conversation with scientists to understand the role of transmission of children at school and when they get back into their multigenerational families and when they get back to caregivers. That has got to be best understood scientifically. And when schools open there has to be a monitoring process to see the impact of the opening on community transmission,” Metcalfe said.

The presentation to the portfolio committee is not final and is subject to the approval of the national command council. 

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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