Coronavirus & Schools

Reopening: A shared responsibility of education departments and stakeholders

By Mary Metcalfe and Shabir Madhi 15 May 2020

Readiness to reopen schools must be built from the ground up by schools, parents, school governing bodies and community leadership working together, say the writers. (Photo: Gallo Images / Grant Pitcher)

The public debate is not assisted by commentators who position the unions as ‘opposed to’ the education department. That is not our reading of the ongoing conversation: The conversation is about how unions as key stakeholders are collaborating with the education department to ensure that schools are ready in terms of the institutional practices of managing health so that teachers, workers and learners are protected.

Public confidence requires an inclusive decision-making process to open and support schools. As has transpired, one of the greatest challenges of having embarked on a lockdown with the looming threat of the Covid-19 pandemic in South Africa, is how exactly to get out of the lockdown.

This is no less manifest when it comes to the closure of schools that was imposed by the lockdown. The country is now gripped with the need for certainty in decision making around the opening of schools, and this is contributing to heightened tensions and anxieties.

In our view, the certainty that is required by learners, parents and communities — and the public in general — is the confidence that the education authorities and stakeholders, particularly teacher unions, have worked together to take all of the necessary steps to ensure the safety of teachers, workers, and learners at schools.

As the public, we must have confidence that these decision-makers and key stakeholders have a solid understanding of the science that underpins this virus and its epidemic, and what this means for how and when we open schools. We need to balance the need for firm decisions with the need to be responsive to new information and to understand how the actions we are taking are influencing the development of the epidemic, or the suppression of the development of the epidemic.

Demanding certainty at this time is the enemy of learning.

We need to be open to new learning, and open to changing our minds on the basis of evidence.

The pressure from the public for certainty and finality is not sensitive to the need for extensive and detailed collaboration and planning between the unions and the national and provincial education departments as we establish readiness. We should not cause mis-steps because of our need for certainty in these uncertain times.

The public debate is not assisted by commentators who position the unions as “opposed to” the education department. That is not our reading of the ongoing conversation: the conversation is about how unions as key stakeholders are collaborating with the education department to ensure that schools are ready in terms of the institutional practices of managing health so that teachers, workers and learners are protected.

To portray unions as being opposed to the department is a misreading of the conversation. It is the public need for certainty and simplicity that makes us commit these errors and heighten tensions. There is no doubt in our minds that both the unions and the education departments want a return to school urgently, but when the necessary conditions are in place for this to happen.

A risk-adjusted approach — opening schools is inevitable, so how do we manage risks?

The country has adopted a risk-adjusted approach to opening the economy and to the opening of schools under conditions of the Covid-19 pandemic. As decisions are being taken about the opening of schools, we as a country need to have an understanding of the role of schools in managing the epidemic and support rational, informed and careful decision-making.

What this means with regard to opening schools is that we must collectively understand the risks that are there — but we also need to do an analysis of the risks of not opening schools and then take the management decisions that are necessary to manage these competing risks. We believe that this is possible, but we must commit to working together as government and stakeholders.

The delay in opening schools has huge implications for the country and for individual learners and their anxieties. It has implications for families and for the way that they manage their working and social lives relative to the needs for childcare and support. It has implications for further opening the economy because workers need to know that their children are safe while they are at work.

The need for schools to open does not only have to do with the need to “cover the curriculum” and ensuring learning, it also has to do with the social institutionalisation of learners in a context of social interaction, of a disciplined social and institutional life within which their social, emotional and health needs are considered, and of personal routines of planning and accountability.

Schools play a critical role in basic health needs. We believe that school feeding should resume urgently as schools reopen.

As we take these decisions, we need to be very clear about time frames and planning. Managing the rate of Covid-19 infections in the country and in schools will be a challenge for at least the next 18 months. The decisions that we take now are not just about opening schools in May or June, but they are about establishing best practices of health management in our schools for the next two years — we need to be planning for December 2021 and beyond.

Schools cannot remain closed for the next 18 months or two years which means we have to open schools on the basis of sustainable practices that protect teachers, workers and learners.

What does the science say?

We are fortunate to have a health scientific community which is continuously monitoring developments internationally and interpreting these in terms of what they mean for the unique features of our context.

In order to manage schools effectively under conditions of Covid-19, we must start with a very clear and common understanding of the available science. We must learn from the best evidence that our excellent health professionals in this country are providing, and from the understanding of the virus and the epidemic that they share with the public.

Key points from the health scientists, and from the task team established by the College of Medicine of South Africa, and recently corroborated by the WHO, for the management of schools at the time of Covid-19 can be summarised as follows:

  • The majority of SARS-CoV-2 infections (virus that causes Covid-19) are asymptomatic; the figures vary between 50% and 80%. What this means is that there will be many people in society — and in schools — who are infected and be carriers of the virus (including during the pre-symptomatic phase in those who develop Covid-19 illness when the viral load is high) but who will not themselves be aware that they are carrying the virus.

There will be no visible symptoms to indicate to those who wish to support them to identify that they are infected. This is why the fundamental principle of managing Covid-19 is in every situation to “manage oneself as if infected”, and to “treat others as if they are infected” so that we are both protecting others and protecting ourselves. This means we must manage schools on the assumption that there are infected learners, teachers and workers who will not be detected by a thermal screening or taking temperatures or even assessing for respiratory symptoms.

  • What the health experts advise, is that screening at school level by thermo-screening (temperature taking) is not helpful. Screening should begin at home, and at school level there should be a routine check if any teachers, learners or workers present with symptoms that suggest that the learner or teacher may have the virus.

If any do, the person should be kept out of school until the test results show they are negative or non-infectious. Those tests should not be done at schools; they need to be done at the nearest health facility and while the results are awaited the teacher, or the learner or the worker must self-quarantine at home. If it is confirmed that the individual has the virus they must self-quarantine at home. Quarantining facilities are not needed at schools, but boarding schools may require that these be provided.

  • As the country heads into winter, the convergence of the normal influenza epidemic with the Covid-19 epidemic means that wisdom will be required in differentiating between flu cases and Covid-19 cases, and we are expecting a spike as the flu virus kicks in.
  • The current science also tells us that children who do become infected are unlikely to be transmitters to other children or adults. That is the best available scientific knowledge now. The World Health Organisation confirms that serious illness due to Covid-19 is seen infrequently in children.
  • When schools return, the greatest risk is to teachers and to workers because the infection is more likely amongst adults than among children. We need to manage our schools with great care toward teachers and workers as adults are the higher at-risk category. This is why the role of the unions in working with the employer to ensure the safety of teachers and workers needs to be appreciated and valued.
  • We also need to identify teachers that are at high risk because we know that risk is associated with age, comorbidity and other factors. In adults, greater than 85% of the ~30% (ie ~25% of overall infections) individuals that become infected would have a mild, self-limiting illness. The risk for severe illness from Covid-19 is greatest in those older than 65 years of age, chronic hypertension, type-II diabetes, obesity, cancer and chronic lung and heart disease. Collectively, these high-risk groups also contribute to >80-90% of all Covid-19 deaths.
  • As schools return, the school management teams (SMTs) and the district officials that support them must make sure that the health protocols around staff rooms, teachers’ and workers’ masks, teachers’ and workers’ hand sanitising are in place as a non-negotiable.
  • Schools must be places where children learn the importance of hand sanitising, the importance of physical distancing, the importance of masks. This will be one contribution of schools to the massive public health education project that we face. The more that children understand the risks, understand what actions are necessary to combat the risks, and the reasons for those actions, the more that we as a country will be taking into every home in the country these lessons of safe community and self-care for the next 18 months.

In doing so, children could become vectors of the spread of knowledge on how to reduce the rate of transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, assisting us in avoiding a massive surge of Covid-19 cases over a narrow window period.

  • Part of the routine health practices that we all need to adopt in schools, in workplaces and at home is the sanitising of surfaces. We know that the virus settles on surfaces and could survive for two to three days on such surfaces.

Consequently, surfaces need to be decontaminated as often as is necessary — this will be determined by the number of people who touch the same surface. For schools, decontaminating surfaces as part of the daily routine is a huge additional responsibility that will possibly require new resources that schools may not have, and schools may need support from the community in decontaminating desks and chairs with alcohol solution or other detergents every day. Where learners move in between classes during the course of the day, this may need to be done more frequently; or movement of learners between classes should be restricted if feasible.

  • Schools will need to assist learners to understand mask management as masks that are touched by hand can be contaminated with the virus. Learners need to understand why they should not be touching their masks.

Learners, teachers and workers should have at least two masks so that one can be washed every night and a clean mask used. The health advice is that children should wear masks in classrooms, but it is not necessary for them to wear the masks all day, and the playground access of learners should be managed by the school management team so that it is phased during the day and not too many learners are in the playground at one time or gathering in groups.

Physical distancing

The greatest challenge for us as a country in terms of managing best practices at schools in times of Covid-19 is how to manage physical distancing. Physical distancing is a key element of management of the epidemic together with the wearing of masks, washing of hands and not touching faces.

We know that the risk of infection is greatest when a person is in the proximity of less than 1.5m to another person for more than 15 to 30 minutes — this is close contact.

How schools are going to manage physical distancing between learners, and between learners and teachers, in conditions of overcrowding and limited space is a challenge that the school management teams will need to work on with all of their energy and creativity once they return. This can only be managed at school level.

The situation will be different in different schools.

When Grade 12 and Grade 7 return, the schools will have many spaces to support physical distancing, but that needs to be managed with the available teachers and subject expertise among the teachers required to teach the different subjects multiple times if that is what is required.

We need to have more desks, more classrooms (or classrooms that are large enough for desk spacing) and more teachers.

Schools need to consider how to extend school infrastructure by using community halls or churches, or by rotating school attendance so that not all learners are at school at the same time in order to achieve the necessary physical distancing.

Some schools that are not able because of space constraints to have minimal levels of physical distancing may need to look for additional premises. As classes become smaller, there will be implications for the number of teachers needed. Or — there will have to be fewer hours per day of instruction for different grades, with a modified curriculum.

The education complication of providing appropriate teaching to learners in the specific condition of the school can only be resolved once the school management team is back — and school management teams can only return when the basic elements of providing a safe environment are in place.

The WHO’s advice confirms these guidelines

The World Health Organisation (WHO) document, Considerations for School related Public Health Measures (issued on 10 May) confirms the best advice, outlined above, that we are receiving in South Africa. The WHO confirms that decisions around whether to open or close schools depends on current understandings of transmission and severity among children and teachers: on local situations and the epidemiology in areas where schools are located; and the ability of schools to maintain prevention and control measures.

It confirms that schools need to have policy and resources in place to ensure hand and respiratory hygiene, and distancing to limit crowding.

It confirms that we need to manage classrooms so there is a desk spacing of one metre between desks — and this is our greatest challenge.

It confirms that schools need to have access to the necessary supply of materials to prevent transmission.

It confirms that all activities — even recreational — have to be adjusted to ensure adherence to recommended measures.

It also confirms that we need to consider the age of children. Foundation Phase, or children in Early Childhood Development centres need a different support to adolescence — and children in special schools require urgent attention. It confirms that food security is a major consideration in the capability of children to withstand the infection and its complications and that we should be ensuring that children receive a meal at school.

A team at the College of Medicine of South Africa has produced guidelines for schools and a guideline for public transport that are invaluable resources for all of our schools and all of our communities in terms of understanding the way forward in the management of the virus in schools.

These guidelines and the WHO document of 10 May can be accessed on the organisations’ websites.

What is a readiness in relation to the opening of schools?

Readiness will not be uniform and will be context-dependent.

Some schools might need running water or additional resources for social distancing — all these cannot be determined nationally but need to be resolved locally within a national and provincial enabling policy framework and guidelines. And the implementation problems can only be solved at a local level by stakeholders working together.

As the president continuously calls upon us to do, we must take responsibility at the local level — schools in partnerships with school governing bodies and the community to ensure that schools are safe spaces over the next 2 years.

What this means for a date to “reopen” schools is that while national and provincial departments are working hard to support the readiness preparations at every school, it is each and every school community that needs to be confident about re-opening.

The more that the public is involved at a local level in considering the routines and the resources that are necessary for health safety at schools, the more that they will have confidence that their schools will be ready to receive learners.

 

The public confusion about readiness and when schools will open needs to be understood. The Minister announced a phased return to school of the leadership of each school before the learners return. This is a rational approach that must be supported with each new phase following from assessments of readiness for the next phase.

It was hoped that principals would return to school on 4 May — if the basics were in place. The basics included the cleaning of surfaces (which we believe is not necessary as the schools have been closed for five weeks, and the virus does not survive outside a host for more than three days), and having water in place in all schools.

The minister has been in consultation with the provincial departments and the unions to assess this readiness, and there is unevenness across the country.

Once the principals are at school to prepare for the next phase — the return of school management teams (deputies, department heads) — there would again need to be a readiness assessment. Once the SMTs return to school, there will be a considerable amount of preparation before the teachers return.

Each phase of the return of the school leadership is a progressive deepening of preparation for all of the conditions for the next phase — with the final phase being the return of learners in Grades 12 and 7 into secondary and primary schools that are thoroughly prepared educationally and in terms of health protocols to receive them — and with parents and communities being ready because they understand the steps that have been taken to safeguard learner and communities.

We also need to identify which teachers are more at risk (as described above) than others before the teachers return. We know that risk is associated with age and that older teachers are more at risk and that multiple comorbidities put that teacher at greater risk.

The process of planning which teachers need to be in place for when children return is a massive human resource management challenge. We need to first identify which teachers are at risk, then schools need to do their planning. Having teachers who are able to teach at the lower secondary level does not help if the need is for subject-specific Grade 12 teachers. Where we have an ageing population such as in Foundation Phase, we may have greater levels of comorbidity. That planning process is, in our view, even bigger than getting water and sanitiser to school.

We need to give that process time.

The process to plan how many teachers and with what subject and phase specialisations need to be in place when schools return is a massive human resource management challenge that will take some time to put in place. Schools need first to identify teachers at risk, manage the associated HR processes, then do a detailed planning of teacher needs relative to the new timetable and the teachers who cannot report for duty. Having eight teachers who can teach at the lower secondary level does not help when you need subject specialists at Grade 12.

Where we have an ageing population (such as in Foundation Phase) we may have much more complex comorbidities, and we may not have the teachers needed to replace the teachers who should not report for duty.

This process will need more time than even getting water into schools. We need to give that process time.

And it is only once the teachers return in safe conditions, that teachers can concentrate on their professional work which includes making judgments (in their teaching teams) and supported by district advisers of what content needs to be learned in the time available, how and when to assess this, and how to take forward this professional work in the context of supporting learners with the emotional, social and economic impacts of the epidemic on their lives.

Schools also need to do the work of reconceptualisation of some of the routines in school, assembly, contact sports, how to organise after school care; all of these have to be practices developed at local level based on the best information that is available and in consultation with school communities.

Achieving shared understanding among key stakeholders

The hard part of the current conversation is achieving a shared understanding of the nature of the virus, and what health steps are necessary. It is this conversation informed by correct science that needs to be collaboratively agreed between unions and the department before there can be agreement about what steps need to be in place when.

We need a shared understanding — not only between the education departments and the unions — but between all stakeholders about when it is safe for the SMT to return, when it is safe for teachers to return, and when the school is ready for the learners to return.

Those processes are complex and we have to build the confidence of every SMT to be able to ensure a safe environment; to make sure they can report as to whether or not they have the necessary resources to manage a safe environment, and to know that their reports will be responded to.

The school management teams need, from the time that the principals return, to be in close contact with their circuit managers, with their school governing bodies, with parents and with all community structures in order to communicate a sense of confidence to their immediate communities that they serve. And the school leadership must be confident to listen to concerns and to provide reassurance.

We strongly support the opening of primary and secondary schools with a limited number of learners (Grades 12 and 7) so that the necessary institutional practices can be put into place as schools gradually open. When these practices are in place and have been properly monitored and managed, we can then accelerate the return to school of children within the constraints of physical distancing at each school.

If schools are able to manage the standard operating procedures/health protocols and can do it with all the children, then that school should be permitted to reopen to all of their children. When those institutional processes and practices are in place and are properly resourced and managed and monitored, we can then accelerate the return to school of children within the constraints of physical distancing at that school and within the special timetabling arrangements that the school has developed. If a school is able to manage physical distancing, mask management, surface cleaning and hand sanitation, and it can do it with all of the children confidently, then schools should reopen to all of their children.

So when should school open?

This is not something that can be emphatically determined at national or even provincial level. Schools must open within the national guidelines when in each province and in each district the work has been done to ensure that the risks are managed so that children and teachers will be safe. That is the work that needs to be done now, and it is work that must be done with the support of parents, communities and the public. The more that the public is involved at the local level in considering and monitoring the routines and the resources that are necessary for health safety at school, the more the public will have confidence that their school is ready. 

Opening schools and inequality

A hard issue that we will have to face is the way in which the SARS-CoV-2 has shone its spotlight on our inequalities at home and at school. There will be ongoing inequalities in terms of the ability of learners to learn at home — the majority do not have access to online learning, and our geography of virus “hotspots” is likely to mean that some children will be able to return to school before others.

Our constitutional imperative in terms of the absolute centrality of education as a human right means that we will have to take special measures to ensure that the children whose education is interrupted by this virus are given additional measures of support in order to catch up.

This is a shared task.

Our need for certainty must not rush decision-making. We need the education department together with their stakeholders, the teacher unions, the school governing body associations to put plans in place that will carry us through the next 18 months.

It is essential that all structures of civil society are seen as allies and stakeholders in this huge task that we face as a country. Churches, community organisations of activists at every level need to be taken into our confidence so that they share the responsibility with us for taking care of our children and our learners and ensuring that the opening of schools is something that contributes to the management of the virus and does not result in increased infections.

Even our sternest critics have views that we need to listen to.

This is a time where we all need to accept responsibility for creating the conditions for schools to return safely. Asking for firm timeframes from the Minister and from provincial MECs is asking for more certainty than is possible from above. We all need to assist by being involved in multilevel processes that are inclusive and collaborative at the level of school; at the level of community and building up from that to district-wide and provincial-wide processes.

Readiness must be built from the ground up by schools, parents, school governing bodies and community leadership working together empowered by accurate information and committed to monitoring processes at school level to identifying weakness and to addressing those weaknesses.

Our schools and our teachers need our support as schools reopen. DM/MC

Mary Metcalfe is Education and Change Director at PILO, Improving Learner Performance; Shabir Madhi is Professor of Vaccinology at the University of Witwatersrand.

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