New policy allows SA schools to close to prevent Covid-19 outbreak
The national Department of Education distributed a circular to all schools on Thursday to set out guidelines on Covid-19 to deal with possible community infections. It urged schools to prepare for the possibility of a community outbreak of the virus and for the possibility that they might have to suspend classes to allow children to be quarantined at home.
Update: St Cyprian’s in Cape Town will close from Tuesday with tuition moving to online.
South African schools have been warned to prepare for closure in the event of community-level outbreaks. An interim policy to deal with the Covid-19 virus was circulated on Thursday. The circular emphasises that decisions for learners to stay home, based on possible exposure to or infection with Covid-19, should be justified by available scientific evidence.
The policy also suggests that schools drop awards for perfect attendance as this might prompt sick children to come to school rather than stay at home.
“Schools, working together with local health departments, have an important role in slowing the spread of diseases to help ensure learners have safe and healthy learning environments. To prepare for possible community transmission of Covid-19, the most important thing for schools to do now is plan and prepare.
“As the global outbreak evolves, schools should prepare for the possibility of community-level outbreaks as well as possible recommendations from health officials for learners, staff or whole classes or grades to be quarantined at home. School dismissal could be recommended in certain circumstances.
“Decisions about appropriate public health interventions should always be made in discussion with public health officials who have access to all the relevant information. These decisions include whether learners or educators should remain home from school for a period of time; and whether learners in sections of a school or a whole school should be dismissed,” the policy reads.
The circular adds that schools are not expected to take the decision to close on their own.
“Schools can seek specific guidance from health officials to determine if, when, and for how long to take these steps. Large event cancellations or school dismissals may be recommended for 14 days, or possibly longer if advised by local health officials,” the circular says.
On Thursday 12 March United Herzlia Schools closed its eight campuses around Cape Town until the test results of a parent who was exposed to infected individuals, are known. According to a letter sent out by the school the parent is not showing any signs of illness at present.
“We are awaiting the test results for the virus, which we expect tomorrow afternoon. His children have been in our schools over this last week. We have already begun deep cleaning and will continue to do so over the next few days,” the letter reads.
Kerry Mauchline, the spokesperson for Western Cape MEC for Education Debbie Schäfer, said they had already begun an information campaign in the province’s schools to promote good hygiene.
“We have received the circular from the national department and will be distributing it along with our own updated guidance to schools in the next few days. We add two clarifications to it. The Western Cape Education Department schools can only be closed by the provincial head of department. This decision will be taken in consultation with health authorities. We are also seeking clarity on the term ‘health professional’ in the circular, to ensure that the best protocols are followed by anyone showing the symptoms, and contact history to contain the illness.
“The Western Cape Education Department has sent information to schools on hygiene practices, along with posters for printing, before the first case was identified in the country, and will continue supporting schools to ensure that these hygiene measures are being implemented.
“The national department circular states that schools should start drawing up plans to deal with possible community outbreaks. School plans should be designed to minimise disruption to teaching and learning and protect learners and staff from social stigma and discrimination. Plans can build on everyday practices like those encouraging hand hygiene, monitoring absenteeism and communicating routinely.”
The circular further explains that this information is provided to help schools understand how to assist in preventing the transmission of Covid-19 within school communities and facilities.
“It also aims to help schools react quickly should a case be identified. The guidance includes considerations to help administrators plan for the continuity of teaching and learning if there is a need to quarantine learners or staff within schools or close schools as a result of the spread of Covid-19,” the circular states.
The plan drawn up by the National Department includes that schools temporarily review their absenteeism policies and encourage learners and staff to stay home when sick and allow staff time off to look after sick family members.
In a separate statement, Schäfer confirmed the closure of the Herzlia campuses “as a self-initiated precautionary measure after a parent showed symptoms following international travel”.
“The school called the national hotline – 0800 029 999 – and followed precautionary measures. They are in communication with me and will make further decisions based on the results of the test.
“There is currently one confirmed case of Covid-19 in the Western Cape. He is isolated. There is no need for panic. The Western Cape Government, working with the national government, is monitoring the situation closely and will take the necessary preventative steps should the need arise. The WCED will keep schools informed of any developments that may affect them.
“There is no indication that schools need to close at this stage, and schools must continue as normal,” the statement added.
No cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed in the Eastern Cape, but spokesperson for the province’s Department of Education, Loyiso Pulumani, said they had started hygiene campaigns in all schools.
“We have been conducting our advocacy campaign by distributing posters and flyers that inculcate appropriate action and hygiene standards. We will also combine three key sections: school nutrition, school enrichment and wellness. We have met with the Department of Health to develop protocols of conduct to ensure that safety of learners becomes a priority,” he said.
Pulumani did not answer a question on whether the poor state of sanitation facilities at the province’s schools was a matter of concern to the department. DM
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