/ 21 May 2020

Education: A state of unreadiness

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(Madelene Cronje)

With schools reopening in little more than a week, a report by the department of education and on-the-ground feedback suggest massive challenges in ensuring the safety of learners and teachers alike.

The education department’s own report — the Basic Education Sector State of Readiness Report for the Reopening of Schools — suggests that schools will not know how many teachers are unable to return to work as a result of underlying illnesses. And only two provinces have indicated their plan to deal with at-risk learners. The report was shared with teachers unions before Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga briefed the media on Tuesday night.

Despite Motshekga’s back-to-school announcement, Limpopo and the North West say in the report that the date when teachers will return to school will be determined by the delivery of personal protective equipment and cleaning processes.

Motshekga on Tuesday said grade seven and matric learners will begin schooling on June 1, with 1.6-million learners expected to attend. To get schools ready, more than 250 000 teachers will return this Monday. The approval for the reopening has been granted by the National Coronavirus Command Council and Cabinet.

The education department report, which has formed the basis for much of the planning for schools re-opening, shows that provinces will not know how many teachers with underlying illnesses are employed at each school until they are back at work.

This has led to questions from teachers unions about whether provincial education departments will have enough time to employ replacement teachers in the week before learners also return school.

On Wednesday, five teachers unions released a survey of nearly 9 000 schools across the country. Nearly 23 000 schools will open on June 1. The survey, conducted between May 15 and 18, showed that 95% of respondent schools had not cleaned and disinfected their classrooms. About 94% had not received hand sanitisers, 78% did not have soap and water, 99% had not received the delivery of sufficient masks for learners, and 92% did not have material for cleaning and disinfecting surfaces during the day.

These problems highlight wider, longstanding issues at schools and an education system that has often failed to provide learners with basic water and sanitation services. 

The minister has previously lamented the lack of cohesion in enforcing agreements among the provincial education MECs. In a move that seems to address this, Motshekga also announced the appointment of a consortium of independent monitors that will verify information coming from provinces. This could also put more distance between the minister and anything that does go wrong at a provincial level when schools reopen. 

In a statement that coincided with the launch of the survey, the teachers unions said Motshekga was using “vague” information provided by provincial departments of education to push through reopening schools. They also warned that principals “on the ground” are saying that conditions at their schools are not safe. 

“We, however, wish to make it clear that if PPEs [personal protective equipment] had not arrived at schools and the required cleaning had not taken place when teachers return on Monday, they are not to endanger their lives by entering such schools,” reads the statement. The unions said the department lacks “human-centred leadership” in a time of dealing with complex issues.

How (not) to deal with teachers and learners

The education department’s readiness report shows that only the Eastern Cape and Free State departments of education talk about how they will deal with teachers with comorbidities, which they will do by seeking that information when teachers are at school.

The Eastern Cape says preliminary disclosure forms have been developed. The Free State indicated that those teachers will be given forms to complete for approval for them to work from home. That province’s education department notes that: “It is uncertain how many teachers would qualify until schools reopen.”

On Thursday, Gauteng department of education MEC Panyaza Lesufi  said in the case of teachers who are older than 60 and have comorbidities who apply not to return to work, schools will be provided with substitute teachers. He said some of the substitutes would be taken from surplus teachers who had been allocated to new schools.

Other provinces are silent about teachers with existing illnesses, only saying they have a database of unemployed teachers to fill vacant posts.

Contrary to the report shared with teachers unions, Motshekga said in her briefing that provinces had profiled the number of teachers and principals who are about 60 years old, as well as those with underlying issues. She did not provide details about how they would be accommodated and how soon replacements would be hired. The only detail she offered was that: “HR [human resources] is working on this; those with underlying challenges, what do we do with them, [and] those of a certain age.”

It is not clear how learners with pre-existing illnesses will be accommodated by schools, because six provinces did not provide any details. This could indicate that those provinces do not have a plan, The unions received the report, which is meant to help with the final push of getting teachers to return to schools, just six days before they were due to do so. 

The Eastern Cape and Free State said these learners “will be withheld from attending school until it is medically safe to do so”. The two provinces said when schools re-open, parents will be given forms to declare their children’s underlying illnesses. Mpumalanga said it had a “plan in place” to support learners with comorbidities, but did not say what this plan is. 

On Tuesday, Motshekga said children with underlying illnesses will be dealt with case by case. She said although every child is important, children with pre-existing illnesses cannot determine the future of other learners who do not have illnesses.

“We cannot close schools because there are kids who are not well. We acknowledge that and we are saying, ‘let us deal with it case by case’. But we are not going to determine the future of the nation on the basis of [those] other children. It is not correct, important as they may be,” Motshekga said.

Monitoring system

Motshekga also announced that she had appointed a consortium of independent monitors who will verify information from provinces. This was because the travel restrictions made it difficult for officials to go to each province and verify the information the department is receiving.

“The consortium, which is independent, has auditors, [and] call centres will assist us to verify information, but will also assist the public, especially school principals, to communicate with us in case they encounter challenges,” she said.

The appointment of the consortium is indicative of the ongoing trust issues between her department and provincial education departments. The provinces do not report to Motshekga: much of what happens in the education sector is up to the provinces, but the minister is in charge of national education.

In an interview with Mail & Guardian in 2018, Motshekga said it was difficult to hold provinces to account because she does not hire MECs. “I can’t do anything, because it [the province] belongs to somebody else, even though we have agreed we will do it together.”

Motshekga said, during her tenure as minister she would often be taken aback that she and MECs would agree on priorities in meetings of the Council for Education Ministers — a structure on which all education MECs sit — but when she went back for a progress report the steps they had agreed on had not been taken.

Some union leaders believe that the appointment of the consortium shows that Motshekga knows that provinces have a history of “embellishing things and lying”. They have also questioned how the minister made the announcement to reopen schools before the consortium had reported that all is well. The truth will become clear in the next week.