/ 21 May 2020

Schools reopening terrifies me

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Locked out: Paddy Harper is relieved that his son, who is in grade eight, won’t be going back to school just yet. (Delwyn Verasamy)


It’s still dark, but I’m up earlier than usual. The working week is nearly over. I’m keen to kill the work off, dispense with one set of anxieties for a couple of days, at least. Switch off for a bit, if I can.

There’s plenty more anxieties left to deal with until the work cycle starts again: the loss of income; the threat of me or my family becoming infected; the rising number of deaths, which are going to increase when the economy opens up further and kids return to school.

Anxiety is the one thing there is plenty of right now. Perhaps it will become easier to live with the anxiety that comes with the pandemic as time goes on. Perhaps a numbness will come with time, but it hasn’t happened yet.

It’s still too early for Glenwood’s jogging-and-walking-the-dog brigade. It’s not too early for the crew of homeless men who arrive every Thursday, long before the sun these days, to harvest what’s in the bins we’ve left outside in the street for collection by the municipality. Lockdown or not, they’ve been here every Thursday.

Today they’re far less hurried, less furtive, than they were earlier in the lockdown, when fear of arrest forced them to pick through the bins at lighting speed with a lookout posted at the end of the street, like they were robbing a bank or something, but they’re still done with their work long before the sun comes up. By the time the first jogger passes, they’ve repacked the bins and moved on with plastic bags full of what they’ve gleaned from our waste.

It’s nearly 60 days since the Covid-19 lockdown kicked in. There’s still no sign around Glenwood of the 70000-odd South African National Defence Force soldiers employed by President Cyril Ramaphosa to enforce the stay-in-the-pozi decree.

Perhaps they’ll make themselves more visible once the country moves to level three and there’s more activity in the streets.

Perhaps Glenwood will keep behaving and the soldiers won’t be deployed to suburbia at all.  When the head of state announced the employment, I had visions of armoured columns trundling down Alan Paton Road; choppers hovering over Bulwer Park; foot patrols in Brand Road. It’s almost been disappointing that none of this has materialised.


There’s now some movement at the school across the road in preparation for the proposed return of grade seven and grade 12 learners on June 1.

Since the lockdown started, the only human presence at the school, normally a hub of noise and movement, has been the live-in grounds staff and the security guard at the gate. There’s been a bit more movement this week, since more sectors returned to work: a few maintenance vehicles and workers, and delivery vehicles — a pretty clear indication that the school is getting ready to open up again.

I’m not convinced that it’s time for schools to open yet, even on an incremental basis. The return to school scares me. I get that education, like the economy, needs to get going again; that the lockdown has now served its purpose and can’t be maintained indefinitely, but I’m still terrified by the idea of schools reopening prematurely.

Maintaining physical distancing and proper hygiene will be close to impossible in many of our schools and difficult in all of them. This could go very wrong. In many ways, the first wave of kids who are returning to school are guinea pigs, human crash-test dummies pressed into service to find out if the new system does, in fact, work.

It’s selfish, but I’m still pretty relieved that it’s grade seven and grade 12 that are going back to school first. So is my 13-year-old son, who started grade eight in January.

Our man would be quite happy to stay at home until there’s a Covid-19 vaccine — or a cure — is available, even if it means he has to repeat the year.

He took cover from the time of the president’s first announcement that the lockdown was being implemented and he hasn’t really left his bedroom since. Even the introduction of the 6am to 9am exercise window hasn’t enticed him out of his self-imposed isolation to skateboard in the street with his mates.

The coming weeks will tell whether the department of education can deliver on its commitment to make our schools safe for a return to learning.

I share the concern of the teachers unions — and my 13-year-old. The department of basic education still hasn’t got textbook distribution right. Can it be relied on to get the personal protective equipment to the schools in time, and in sufficient quantities, to give the schools a chance of operating without becoming transmission centre