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Teacher unions warn Motshekga not to jump the gun on reopening schools

Five years ago teacher unions spoke with one voice when they rejected the annual national assessments (ANAs), which evaluate the levels of competency in literacy and numeracy of learners in grades 1 to 6 and grade 9. 

The assessments were introduced by the department of basic education in 2011. But unions were unhappy with the annual assessments, saying the frequency of them did not give schools a chance to improve on the previous year’s results. A consequence of the ANAs was learners were being taught to “pass” the assessment and this was not effective, according to the unions.

In 2015 the department postponed the assessment. 

Fast forward to 2020. As the country is battling the coronavirus pandemic, the teacher unions have again found one voice as they dig in their heels over the reopening of schools. This should not happen unless their members will be safe. The unions have also criticised the department’s handling of the announcement about schools reopening and accused it of miscommunication. 

On May 1, the South African Democratic Teachers Union, the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa, the National Teachers’ Union, the Professional Educators Union and the SA Onderwysunie released their first joint statement on the reopening of schools. 

This followed a press briefing by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga where she said that grades 7 and 12 learners were likely to return to school on June 1, that the school management team, which includes principals, was expected back on May 11 and teachers on May 18.

Motshekga also announced plans for social distancing in classrooms, which included that not more than two learners will share a desk, that hugging and handshaking is prohibited, that teachers and learners will wear masks at all times, that classrooms will be sanitised before the start of the school day and that people will sanitise their hands before entering the classroom. She said schools without water will receive water tankers and provinces are expected to buy personal protective equipment, hand sanitisers and disinfection material for schools. 

In their first joint statement, unions said the school management team would not go back to school on Monday, May 11, if they have not been screened by health officials and if Covid-19 essentials are not “100% delivered”. 

On Monday the department released a statement stating that Motshekga had met union leaders and other stakeholders ahead of a press briefing to be held on Thursday, May 14. It is at this briefing, according to the statement, that Motshekga will share “details that include the final dates and detailed plans for the phased approach to the possible reopening of schools”. 

On Tuesday, May 12, the unions sent another joint statement reporting on the progress report they had received from the department at a Monday meeting.

“We wish to state that for the minister to address the nation before addressing all the areas that are still not compliant will further erode the confidence in the public education system,” reads the statement. 

“The manner in which the department is conducting itself on the consultations is causing trust deficit with the unions and this must be addressed. The DBE [department of basic education must] desist from misleading the public about unions having agreed on everything.”

The unions said the department’s report said only two provinces indicated that they are ready for the school management team — but only on Wednesday and not on Monday. 

The unions said provinces must use this week to ensure schools have Covid-19 essentials and have been disinfected. Thereafter the school management teams can report to work on May 18. 

The Limpopo and Eastern Cape departments of education said their school management teams should not report to work on Monday because they were still waiting for the delivery of sanitisers, protective equipment and all other essentials. 

“The report painted an unbelievable picture when [it said] only two provinces were ready despite the insistence of the department that workers must report for duty on the 11th,” the teacher unions said. 

They added that the department had not provided details on other critical matters such as  the employment of substitute teachers in the place of those working from home because of pre-existing health conditions, as well as the reduction of class sizes in compliance with social distancing regulations. 

The unions also said the provision of water and ablutions was behind schedule. 

“The rush to announce dates before assessing the practical situation is damaging to the reputation of the education system. It’s eroding public confidence, and this has to stop,” the statement read.

The unions further said that the only date they had agreed on was May 18 for school management teams to report to work. 

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

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