Covid-19

Analysis

Reopening schools is inevitable, but the Department of Basic Education must carry it out smoothly

Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga. (Photo: Phill Magakoe/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

The social costs of keeping children out of school are piling up fast. But there is another price to pay if the process of reopening schools is rushed and poorly executed.

On Tuesday 12 May Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga briefed the nation about the department’s plans to reopen schools. It should have been an appropriate platform to wholly address concerns about the readiness of schools to reopen while the full might of the virus is yet to be felt. 

It’s probably safe to say it was this week’s most sought-after briefing considering the public was on tenterhooks for weeks about school reopening dates, but numerous questions were left unanswered, and where there was an attempt, granular detail was lacking and not reassuring.  

Many of these concerns have to do with the department’s capacity to ensure that the essential “non-negotiables” like PPE, water and sanitation facilities and other hygiene-related equipment are procured and delivered on time. This task has been left up to the provincial departments. 

“Our provinces lack the capacity and zeal and they have gotten away with it for a long time,” said Basil Manuel, the executive director of the National Professional Teachers’ Union of SA (Naptosa).

Provincial departments have a tainted track record. Thus, there is minuscule public confidence in what provincial education departments can deliver, when, and how during this period. 

Following closely are the health risks posed by reopening schools, with many parents concerned about their children contracting the virus and spreading it at home. This is especially so in households where family units consist of elderly people, some with comorbidities, and who have been identified as the most vulnerable group, with a high risk of developing severe Covid-19. 

A grandmother of three who called in during the briefing asked what guarantee the minister could give that her three grandchildren will not come back and infect her (an elderly woman with comorbidities) with the virus. 

Available research widely points to the unsusceptibility of children to developing severe Covid-19, but it remains uncertain whether children can be vectors. 

And though the department has repeatedly reiterated that it is guided by the health ministry (which is steering the medical direction of South Africa’s response to the virus), it seems reluctant to share some of the medical research being used to back up the rationale to reopen schools. 

“We have mainly relied on expert advice from the medical fraternity, but also from research and information both locally and internationally, to studying what the international trends are to inform our plans,” Motshekga said. 

She added that international bodies like Unesco are the ones calling for schools to reopen. “It’s not me who is saying that schools must reopen. It’s Unesco, Unicef, and WHO.”  

There is also the question of what happens to children who have long-term health conditions. It remains unclear whether the department has thoroughly addressed the issue of educators who have comorbidities and are older. 

According to the minister, children with underlying health conditions will be dealt with case by case. Educators, on the other hand, have to rely on the fact that a profile was done, and based on this profile (whose detail is lacking) guidelines on how to manage them are yet to be drafted. 

A joint survey conducted by five teacher unions between 16 and 18 May – Naptosa, SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu), National Teachers’ Union (Natu), Professional Educators’ Union (PEU) and the South African Teachers’ Union (SAOU) – noted that 92% of schools had not, at the time, been disinfected or cleaned. 

The survey was sent to all union members, but only those who are school principals had to respond. The unions received 9,365 complete responses. 

Additionally, it noted that 60% of respondents in the Eastern Cape said there was no water supply in their schools.

While reporting to the Parliamentary Committee on Basic Education, the department said an audit it undertook revealed that 3,500 schools across the country are in need of urgent water supply. 

Data points on a map used by the department during its presentation to the committee show that many of these schools are in far-flung, rural areas, where many of the resources are gravely needed, but rarely ever reach. 

There was an opportunity during Tuesday’s briefing for the department to update the public on progress made with providing a water supply to these schools since their audit. 

If the public can be updated on the number of additional hospital beds and quarantine facilities that have been mobilised to prepare the health system for a peak, surely the same principle can be applied to deal with and assess school readiness?

“DBE entered into an implementation protocol agreement with the Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation and Rand Water. We will ensure that no schools go without water. Just-in-time delivery will be made,” Motshekga said on Tuesday. 

On the issue of learner transport, the department’s strategy is to only deal with scholar transport it provides, and those learners who use public transport or transport that is privately organised by parents must fend for themselves. 

While this might not be the department’s prerogative, as the custodian of the sector, there is leeway to engage with scholar transport associations about developing safety protocols for the sector, even if done through the Department of Transport. 

There are enough stories and reports documenting how school children are sometimes crammed like sardines in scholar transports. 

Not so long ago in January, when the country was still watching the virus’s progression from afar, a video showing 58 learners overloaded into a 14-seater minibus taxi in Limpopo emerged on social media. 

There was outrage. But those who know can attest that it happens more often than it is ever reported. 

Close to five petitions on the petition website change.org have been created to challenge the department’s decision to reopen schools, with the largest created by former DA leader and now chief activist of the One South Africa Movement, Mmusi Maimane. 

With a target of 150,000 signatures, the petition has garnered 101,622 signatures. 

Some parents have organised themselves and wrote to the minister with a plea that children should rather repeat grades if their health cannot be guaranteed. 

“We’re grappling with the complexities of whether schools should reopen on 1 June,” said Equal Education’s co-head of research Roné McFarlane. 

“Via the briefings of the various education MECs, we are not convinced that the national and provincial education departments will have met all requirements in the next two weeks,” she continued. 

Unions echo the same sentiments. 

The social costs of keeping children out of school are piling up fast. But there is another price to pay if the process of reopening schools is rushed and poorly executed. DM

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