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The department must communicate the same message to prevent confusion

In Botswana a man is in jail because he spread false information about Covid-19. The local media is reporting that the man sent a voice note to his village’s WhatsApp group saying that a person who had travelled to South Africa had contracted the disease and had come back to Botswana and died.

He appeared in court last week and pleaded for bail because he was worried he would lose his job should the lockdown be lifted while he is in jail. But the magistrate has kept him in prison while investigations into the matter continue.

Here in South Africa, a Western Cape man was arrested in April for posting a video alleging that Covid-19 testing kits were contaminated. He was released on warning and is due back in court.

In March, the government gazetted regulations that made it a criminal offence to spread incorrect information about Covid-19. This is standard practice in other countries as well.

The thing is, this is such a difficult time for everyone. People are anxious, life has been turned on its head and the distribution of fake news causes panic. During this time people need to hear credible information from reliable sources.

When it comes to the opening of schools, information purporting to be about internal discussions between the department of basic education and other stakeholders was divulged.

Documents with plans about the reopening of schools and the date on which this would happen circulated on WhatsApp groups. Friends and family forwarded them to me to confirm their authenticity.

But this information was not sent directly to me, so I could not vouch for it and I gave the standard answer of “let us wait for the department to make a formal announcement”.

And as we now know, schools did not open on May 6 as the leaked documents had suggested.

The reality is that parents and caregivers are anxious about the schools reopening and I was not about to play a part in the confusion and panic that those documents had already created. Parents, caregivers and learners deserve to consume credible, verified information.

That is why it is also imperative that the department speaks with one voice and does not send out conflicting messages. It was disappointing then to read a story in the Sowetan early this month about parents of learners with chronic illnesses raising concerns about their children going back to school and the department offering two different responses.

The department’s spokesperson, Elijah Mhlanga, said: “Learners with chronic illnesses will be able to catch up with the curriculum on different television channels and radio stations. This will continue into the future, we have even established a permanent education channel with the SABC.”

This is contrary to what Minister Angie Motshekga said at two press briefings in March and earlier this month.

She spoke at length about how the department cannot take responsibility for any learning that happens outside the classroom — that is, radio and television lessons — because learners might not have access to TV and radios.

She offered as an example a household with several school-going children who would now have to take turns to sit next to the radio to listen to their grade’s lessons, something she said is impractical. Although these kinds of learning interventions were appreciated, Motshekga said the department can only be confident of what happens between a learner and a teacher inside a classroom.

So receiving conflicting messages from the department is a recipe for panic among parents.

In this week’s much anticipated briefing the department was vague about many things that parents, learners and teachers are anxious about — including the issue of how children with chronic illnesses will be catered for when grades seven and 12 learners return to the classroom on June 1.

Motshekga merely said that parents need to work closely with schools to ensure that learners with pre-existing illnesses are “assisted”.

But what does this mean? It does not say anything.

I think we all appreciate that the department has not quite figured out everything yet. And it might well be that some things will be a case of trial and error.

But what is most crucial is that the department communicates a clear and concise message to parents and caregivers to avoid unnecessary panic and further confusion.

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

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