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Testing times for grade 12 learners

Matrics who test positive for Covid-19 could find themselves writing their exams in a clinic or hospital room. Infected learners will use sanitised satchels and security bags to hand in their scripts. 

Invigilators at all exam rooms must check for crib notes inside learners’ masks, and if candidates leave anything in the exam room after writing their papers, it might be disposed of for hygiene reasons. These are some of the regulations the department of basic education has put in place for the writing of the matric exams during the pandemic. Grade 12 teachers have described this period as tense and highly stressful. 

Candidates who previously told the Mail & Guardian they were worried they might not do well after missing months of school because of the lockdown are finding the exams “okay” and are confident they will pass. 

Two weeks into the exam period, by all accounts, everything was proceeding smoothly except for a few incidents where learners in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng were caught with crib notes and two candidates, one in the Eastern Cape and the other in KwaZulu-Natal, were found with cellphones inside the exam room. 

But things took a different turn this week when the maths paper two was leaked a few hours before it was written on Monday. The department’s chief director of national assessments and public examinations, Rufus Poliah, said on Wednesday that the paper found its way into the pockets of learners in eight provinces. The minister of basic education, Angie Motshekga, said it appeared only the Free State was unaffected by the leak. 

The department is still investigating, and it is not yet known whether grade 12 learners will have to rewrite the paper. 

This year’s matric exams are significant in that more than one million candidates are writing, a much bigger number than usual because the lockdown prevented candidates from writing in June. 

New approach

Because of the pandemic, the department has taken a new approach in the administration and management of the exams. Basic safety and health requirements have to be observed at all exam centres, according to the department’s protocols that are in compliance with the Covid-19 regulations. 

A Limpopo learner who is repeating matric this week said things were being done differently compared with how last year’s exams were conducted. The learner said candidates now have to arrive at school an hour early for screening before going into an exam room. 

The protocols also call for alternative venues to be arranged in case an examination centre has to be closed as a result of infections. 

A grade 12 teacher in the Eastern Cape this week said that ordinarily invigilating the matric exams was stressful but under Covid-19 it had been made worse. 

“We have to be extra careful each and every moment,” he said.

The department has had to train invigilators on its new standard operating procedures and protocols, which include how to closely observe the action of candidates who might use face masks to “conceal unauthorised materials such as notes or communication devices”.

Updating the portfolio committee on basic education recently, quality assurer Umalusi said provincial departments have had to increase the number of invigilators to cater for the June candidates writing in November. The provinces have employed private invigilators and the department has requested “reserve invigilators” in case invigilators test positive for the coronavirus. 

Until the eve of the first day of writing the exam, the department had said that learners who test positive for the virus would not be allowed to write and that they would only do so in June next year. After meetings with the department of health, it was decided that these learners would write in isolation. 

Last Friday, the education department said 93 candidates had tested positive for the virus. The majority of these learners (53) were in the Eastern Cape and of this number 19 were at schools in Port Elizabeth. 

(John McCann/M&G)

Surge in Covid-19 cases 

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has said the Eastern Cape is experiencing a surge in positive Covid-19 cases in Covid-19 cases, causing a 50% spike in week-to-week numbers. Many of the cases are in the Nelson Mandela Bay municipality. 

The department’s circular on candidates who test positive while writing their exams says that parents have to alert the school and arrangements would be made for the learner to write at an isolated venue. 

In conjunction with the health department, provincial departments of education will have to decide on isolation centres for candidates. These centres could be clinics, a room in a hospital, a community hall, a church hall or even their homes if the environment is conducive for writing exams. 

Already the Gauteng department of education has said that candidates who test positive for the coronavirus will be transported by ambulance from their home to Nasrec in Johannesburg, which has a field hospital. They will remain in quarantine there for 10 days, studying and writing their finals at the facility. 

Candidates who present with a temperature higher than 38°C and answer yes to two or more of the questions on the screening questionnaire will write in an isolation venue at the exam centre. Protocols will be strict for candidates who test positive and write in isolation. An examination official will hand the exam paper in a sealed satchel to the invigilator who will then give it to the candidate. 

Once a candidate has finished writing, they will put their script into a security bag and seal it. The candidate will have to sanitise the bag and drop it into a box. The security bag will then be placed in another security bag to be handed over to the examination official, who has to remain in the isolation room until the candidate finishes writing. 

Those who conceal the status of a candidate will face legal consequences.

Candidates who cannot write an examination because of the nature of their symptoms will be allowed to do so only in June next year. 

The issue of invigilating Covid-19 positive candidates in isolation rooms has been contentious. The National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa director, Basil Manuel, said this week it was “beyond ridiculous” to ask teachers — who are under pressure as it is — to invigilate Covid-19 positive candidates. 

The South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) has said teachers must not be compelled to invigilate learners who test positive but must only do so out of choice. 

A spokesperson for Sadtu, Nomusa Cembi, said the union had told the department that teachers who choose to invigilate learners who have tested positive must be provided with the personal protective equipment given to healthcare workers.

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

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