OP-ED

As the Covid-19 storm begins to peak, we are being sent back to school

By Sue Davis 22 May 2020

Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

The need to reopen our schools is not in dispute; the timing is. Yet, I will dutifully report to school on Monday to teach.

As a teacher at a government school in Cape Town, I am passionate about education and the young people that I teach. Right now, though, I am devastated by the decision to force teachers back to work on Monday 25 May, followed by Matric students on 2 June.

It is reiterated that this virus will be with us for years, that the decision to reopen schools has drawn on the experiences of other countries, and that “Life has to move on”. (Angie Motshekga)

My chief concern is that other countries are emerging from this Covid-19 storm; we are only just entering it.

Teacher Sue Davis. Photo: SUPPLIED

A dreaded Covid-19 peak is set to hit the Western Cape in June … just in time for us to go back to school, in winter, where social distancing is a virtual impossibility, increased susceptibility of adult teachers and school support staff to Covid-19 is guaranteed, and the further spread of this illness beyond question. 

Under current lockdown regulations, places of worship are not permitted to open; adults are not permitted to gather or socialise; parliamentarians only dare to meet via screens – but teachers and children are being forced back into close proximity in classrooms on a daily basis. 

It is, quite simply, ludicrous.

There is no replacement for face-to-face teaching in all its richness and complexity. Teachers like me all over the country are simply doing the best we can, under very trying circumstances. Teaching online with patchy connectivity, without any prior training or online support, is a nightmare; its effectiveness for the diverse circumstances of our learners, questionable.  I am concerned about my learners, especially those in difficult home situations and without access to online learning.  

Herculean efforts have been made to deliver food and data vouchers to vulnerable learners and their families in our school community. Inevitably, some kids are “missing in action” – those who have data, but have not responded to online teaching, despite teachers’ best efforts to reach them.  Mental health is fragile for many at this time. Our children are doing the best they can, despite high levels of anxiety and stress.  

In this season of plague and pestilence, teachers and matriculants bear the brunt of relentless pressure to prepare for exams and to keep the 2020 matric year intact. Forcing teachers back into classrooms and giving matriculants the “choice” to return, just as we start to ramp up Covid-19 infections and deaths, beggars belief. This is an educational form of Russian Roulette gone viral.

In the pressure cooker of South African lockdown, the challenge of online teaching combines with infinite permutations of domesticity: full-time parenting; caring for elderly parents; dwindling resources; fractured family dynamics; juggling limited online time with kids and a working / studying spouse; falling ill with flu-like symptoms; Covid-19 test results that never arrive; cabin fever; enduring lockdown alone; worrying about family on the healthcare frontline, and a daily stream of people desperate for food.

I am keenly aware that it is a privilege to have a job at this time of terrible suffering. At some schools SGB (School Governing Body) teachers have already been informed about pending salary cuts, with possible retrenchments if the non-payment of school fees continues. Principals are in the unenviable position of trying to safeguard their schools and staff positions in the face of overwhelming uncertainty.

The need to reopen our schools is not in dispute; the timing is.  

The Covid-19 storm is finally beginning to break … and we are being sent back to school. I will report for duty on Monday 25 May, because I cannot afford unpaid leave. Meanwhile, Cape Town hospital beds are starting to fill with critically ill patients at the start of the projected peak; deaths will follow. In the overwhelming uncertainty of Corona quicksand, I wonder how long it will be before schools are forced to close again.    

Life must go on. However, at this stage of the Covid-19 curve, I’m not sure that going back to school is worth any teacher’s life. DM

Sue Davis is a teacher who has been at it for 25 years.

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