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Basic education department must not send conflicting messages

Last year the department of basic education came under attack from South Africans regarding the way it communicated about the reopening of schools after they had been closed during the hard lockdown. 

Sometimes there were conflicting messages that left parents and learners none the wiser about what needed to be done. 

Of course, one could argue that no one knew how to deal with a virus that had just arrived and rearranged our lives; and one would argue that the department could be forgiven for what sometimes appeared to be its poor handling of the Covid crisis. 

It is almost a year since the country has been grappling with the pandemic and, yes, it is still not easy to navigate life and various decisions about this virus, but life has to go on. 

By now the department should have learnt many lessons of how to carry out its mandate in the midst of this pandemic. Parents and learners should not still be dealing with a department that is sending out conflicting information about the opening of schools. 

On 15 January, the basic education deputy minister, Reginah Mhaule, announced at a media briefing the decision taken by the cabinet and the National Coronavirus Command Council to delay the reopening of schools because of the increase in the number of Covid-19 cases. She said the day for reopening schools had been pushed back by two weeks. Public schools would now open on 15 February and no longer on 27 January

No date was given for private schools, some of which had already opened from the second week in January. Mhaule said these private schools needed to close. 

A few days after this announcement, Gauteng MEC for education Panyaza Lesufi visited a private school after the school had sent a newsletter to say it would open on 18 January. The school later said it would continue with lessons online. 

But, when Lesufi visited the school to persuade it not to reopen the department was yet to gazette regulations pertaining to the announcement made by Mhaule. 

So there was nothing standing in the way of private schools opening because there was nothing in law that prevented them from doing so. The department only held a press briefing and released a press statement — a press statement can’t prevent private schools from opening. 

It was a week after Mhaule made the announcement that the department released the regulations stipulating that private schools should open on 1 February. 

To make matters worse, the same Mhaule who had said at the press briefing that private schools needed to close told the portfolio committee on basic education last week that if private schools want to open they could not be stopped and were within their right to do so. 

It is precisely these conflicting messages communicated to South Africans that make it look as if the department makes decisions ad hoc. This makes South Africans lose confidence in the people leading the department.

Parents of children attending these private schools need to plan properly for when their children go back to school. The schools also have to be prepared. To have the department flip-flop like this has not been helpful. 

It also appears to be clumsy when a deputy minister is not consistent in what she says — one week she says one thing and the next week she sings from a different hymn book. Consistent information from those who are leading the nation is key during this critical moment in our history.

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

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