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Schools: Confusion rather than clarity and confidence reign

No matter how you look at it, the way the department of basic education has handled the schools reopening project has not been great. It has been clumsy, chaotic and downright confusing. It does not matter how hard you try to spin it, it doesn’t look good. 

From communicating contradictory messages and postponing press briefings at the last hour to showing up for the briefing but causing more confusion by making bold statements only to come back and say something different, it is difficult to keep up with it all. 

And if anything, the department has left many parents, teachers, learners and the rest of the population bewildered. 

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga was adamant at some point that all teachers would be back at work on May 25. But that never happened. And on Sunday evening, Motshekga said in a statement that teachers should go back to school on June 1. But June 1 is the date that Motshekga had said was the date when grades seven and 12 learners would return to school. Of course this did not happen; we got to learn that they were now going back on June 8.

In a recent radio interview on 702, Motshekga said she did not know why people were causing “drama” about the reopening of schools. Yes, she did say that.

But the drama South Africans have been watching unfold in front of their eyes is how quick Motshekga has been in making announcements about teachers and learners going back to school and many other issues only to come back and give different information. 

Last week Motshekga was so sure that schools would open that she told journalists during visits to schools in Gauteng that she expected teaching and learning to start on Wednesday. This is even though, even today, there are still schools that are not compliant with the Covid-19 regulations governing their reopening.

She even went on to say that teachers who were anxious about going back to school should stay at home and let those who are not worried enter the school gates — a suggestion that those staying at home will be making space for unemployed younger teachers. 

Teachers had every right to be anxious because it was only on May 30 that her department managed to provide guidelines to deal with teachers with comorbidities who are more vulnerable to Covid-19. But teachers were expected back at work on May 25 without these guidelines in place.

On Friday the Government Gazette announced the return of other grades but did not include grades one and two. This, too, had parents with children in those grades panicking and confused. Well, the error was silently fixed on Monday. 

The statement on Sunday evening said schools will only reopen on June 8 and Motshekga repeated this at her Monday briefing. But the Western Cape opened schools on Monday, despite the national department’s directive. 

Motshekga was asked at the briefing on Monday about the province’s open defiance but she and her director general, Mathanzima Mweli, chose to not answer the question. And they did not respond to follow-up questions on the matter. 

The Covid-19 pandemic is uncharted waters for everyone and no one has a clear solution about to navigate some of the difficulties t 

This situation is also by far the most challenging one Motshekga has had to deal with in the years she has been leading the department. So far, she has not handled this period in a way that allows teachers and parents to have confidence that the school system can handle this new normal. In the process many people have lost confidence in her and other officials. It is going to take a lot for the department to regain the trust — which was already in short supply — of the public.

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

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