Déjà vu as time runs out for schools to get PPE

Public schools are reopening in about a week’s time. And it almost feels like déjà vu. The scenes from last year, when learners finally returned to school after the hard lockdown, are about to play themselves out again. 

Already teacher unions — through a survey they conducted with school principals — have said that the 7 440 heads from all provinces who participated in the survey expressed little confidence that schools will be able to comply with Covid-19 protocols. 

They cited not having enough masks, hand sanitiser and water as the reason for this conclusion. 

We have been here before. Last year, the five big teacher unions did similar surveys to gauge the readiness of schools to open. The surveys were what led to them having a back-and-forth with the department of basic education; they were saying that their members would not go back to class if the non-negotiables such as personal protective equipment (PPE) were not in place. 

Even when the people who are on the ground — principals — shared with the teacher unions that their schools were not ready to open because they did not have PPE and water, politicians would go on public platforms and lie that provinces were ready to open schools and that schools were Covid-19 compliant when they actually weren’t. 

Remember that press briefing one evening last year in June with basic education minister Angie Motshekga and the nine MECs? All the MECs told South Africans that their provinces were ready to welcome learners and that schools were provided with what they needed in order to be Covid-19 compliant. 

Listening to that briefing one could have been fooled into believing that indeed everything was above board. But it was a different case when schools finally opened and some schools had still not received their PPE, or others were just provided with 25 litres of sanitiser that was supposed to be used by everyone in the school. 

This led to some schools digging into their pockets to supplement what they had been provided for by provincial departments of education. Other schools delayed opening because of a lack of PPE. 

What followed was press statements from some of these provinces, announcing a delay in the opening of schools, because PPE had still not been delivered in some districts. But politicians had gone on national television and told parents and learners that all was above board. 

The survey by the teacher unions has already given a glimpse of things to come in the next few days, even though no province has actually come forward to say that it is not ready. We are likely to see instances where days before schools open on 15 February, we will receive press statements from provincial departments announcing that some schools are yet to receive their PPE. 

Already the principals in the survey have said that they are not confident that they will receive all the PPE due to them before schools open. 

Covid-19 has already caused significant disruptions in the schooling system, and really the only thing that principals should be preoccupied with is how they can make the most of the time to not only catch up on the work that was not covered last year, but also to cover as much of the 2021 curriculum as possible, as nobody can predict what direction this virus might take next. 

The Mail & Guardian has reported on how the curriculum disruptions will be felt in the years to come, and how schools are producing a generation of learners who will suffer in the next 10 to 15 years because of the gaps in the curriculum. 

If schools can focus more on covering as much as possible of the curriculum, this might assist many of these learners. But school principals are likely going to be making more calls to circuit offices to ask when their PPE will arrive, or when water will be delivered, instead of focusing on the academic calendar. 

Learners, teachers and principals do not deserve this incompetence.

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

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