Death and anxiety rife at matric marking centres as schools reopening delayed

Death and Covid-19 anxiety have caused teachers who have been marking 2020 matric papers to leave designated centres, but results will still be released as scheduled in February. 

This was announced by Deputy Minister of Basic Education Reginah Mhaule, who also announced that the beginning of the 2021 academic year would be delayed by another two weeks because of the country’s high rates of Covid-19 infections. 

Despite these delays, the basic education department asserted that parents were still expected to pay school fees for January, even though no schooling would take place. 

At a briefing held in Tshwane on Friday, Mhaule said that, although some educators at designated marking centres had left the centres because of illness, death, family bereavement or anxiety, the matric class of 2020 would receive its results on February 23.

“Some of our markers have passed away. Others withdrew from marking due to the fear, anxiety, but also because their family members tested positive,” Mhaule said. 

“In the majority of cases, the educators indicated that they had attended funerals or ceremonies attended by big groups of people, resulting in gatherings that were not monitored for compliance with the health protocols, which includes the wearing of masks, social distancing and regular sanitising of hands,” Mhaule said. 

She added that she did not have an exact figure for the number of markers who had been infected and left the centres. 

However, Mzwandile Matthews, the adviser to Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, said that two teachers at the marking centres had died after contracting Covid-19, but added that the department did not know when or where the deceased educators had contracted the virus. 

Motshekga was not at the briefing because she was still on sick leave, Mhaule had said. 

Matthews gave assurances that the class of 2020 would receive their results on time, saying: “Remember, there is a timetable for examinations, and that timetable is predetermined.”

He added: “What has been announced as the date for the release of examinations for 2020 [national senior certificate] will remain as such, unless and until [the] minister, [quality assurance body] Umalusi and the other relevant bodies make a totally different determination.”

Matthews stressed that all teachers who reported to the centres were tested, either on site or at a predetermined location. 

When some markers were found to be Covid-19 positive, Matthews added, the department addressed the situation. “Some of the educators who came to the marking centres didn’t know their Covid-19 status: they [found out] when they were tested at the marking centres,” Matthews said. 

Schools reopening delayed 

Meanwhile, the deputy minister said her department had canvassed and received support from teachers unions, school governing bodies, and representatives from private and independent schools to delay the reopening of schools. 

Schools were expected to reopen on 27 January, but the 2021 academic year would now begin on 15 February. The school management teams would report to school on 25 January, with educators arriving on 1 February to prepare for the year, Mhaule said. 

“Given the pressure experienced by the health system in the past few weeks, occasioned by the increased Covid-19 infections, which has led to the second wave, the Council of Education Ministers, in conjunction with National Coronavirus Command Council and cabinet, has decided to delay the opening of both public and private schools [by] two weeks,” Mhaule said. 

“This is done to provide relief to the health system, which is really struggling to cope with the demands.”

There were 18 503 new Covid-19 cases reported on Thursday, and 712 people succumbed to the deadly virus. 

“The [ministerial council] took this difficult decision, having considered all factors, as backed up by research and statistics regarding the current state of the health system. The priority remains saving lives. 

“The [national department] will work closely with all the nine provinces’ education departments to establish the true extent of the impact of the virus, resulting in the unfortunate demise of educators, workers and leaders in the sector, especially during the December-January holidays,” the deputy minister added.

She emphasised that parents needed to pay fees for January because many schools, especially independent schools and fee-paying public schools, relied on tuition to pay teachers and other staff. 

Mhaule conceded that the Covid-19 pandemic-induced stoppages in the 2020 academic year had affected the curriculum, which has had to run over into the current year. 

“We lost many days due to the pandemic and, at the time, we did not have any plans … because we didn’t plan for the pandemic, because we didn’t know that it would come. 

“Then, as it came, we started with the plans, and the plans are improving on a daily basis because we learn every day,” she said. 

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