We should be worried about children going back to school

Last week Tuesday Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga told the nation in no uncertain terms that teachers will be returning to school on Monday this week.

She repeated this message in seSotho and isiZulu during her briefing. The department’s spokesperson, Elijah Mhlanga, further emphasised the point by repeating it in Xitsonga.

When teachers went to bed on that Tuesday night no one was confused about returning to work the following Monday. The message had been loud and clear.

But at a briefing preceding that one, Motshekga had also said that the school management team was expected back at work on May 18. That did not happen.

That Tuesday she told the nation that the reports from provinces were that they were ready for teachers to arrive at work ahead of the learners returning to school on June 1.

But for weeks now teacher unions — based on meetings and information they are receiving from their members — have been saying that none of the provinces were ready for schools to reopen.

The unions have made it clear that there are non-negotiables that provincial departments of education have to adhere to before their members can set foot in any school grounds. These include the delivery of personal protective equipment at schools, the provision of water to those schools that do not have it and the deep cleaning of schools.

The unions criticised Motshekga for announcing the reopening of schools and asking teachers to go back on Monday. They said the decision was based on “vague” reports that provinces are providing to Motshekga.

Teacher unions carry with them a stigma of liking to create chaos and are largely treated with suspicion. And because of this, it is possible that not many people have been listening to what they have been saying. It is also likely that the findings of the survey the unions released last week, which said that more than 9000 schools around the country are not ready to reopen, flew above the heads of many.

We are allowed to have an opinion about teacher unions — in fact they should be called out when they bring instability in the education system — but in this time of Covid-19 it is their members (the teachers and principals) who are on the ground and therefore have intimate details of what is actually happening at schools.

And so Monday came and most teachers did not arrive at their schools because several provinces had come out to say that they were not ready for their employees to return to work.

You could say the teacher unions were proven right.

Personal protective equipment had not been delivered to all schools, some had not been cleaned and some provinces were still in a process of recruiting people who will be responsible for screening for Covid-19.

Parents, learners and many other people have expressed their concern about learners going back to school — particularly at a time when the virus seems to be spreading.

The concerns are also created by how, over the years, the nation has witnessed the ineptness of provincial departments of education even when they are not facing a pandemic.

The fact that teachers did not return to school as was announced has eroded the belief that schools will be ready for learners on Monday.

About 1.6-million learners are expected to return back to school on Monday and, if the events of this week are anything to go by, it is not far-fetched to worry about their returning to the classroom.

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

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