Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga was correct to err on the side of caution and postpone Monday’s reopening of schools. Thousands of schools simply would not have been able to implement measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) hadn’t arrived and many schools had inadequate or no water supplies or soap for students and staff to wash their hands. Facilities had not been sanitised.
In the days leading up to the planned reopening on 1 June, Motshekga said only schools that had implemented the required health and safety precautions would reopen, but many would have probably fallen through the cracks, reopened and risked the health of learners, staff and their communities.
The Department of Basic Education’s announcement that the return would be delayed, however, was made on Sunday, only hours before more than a million learners were meant to report for class, after yet another postponed press briefing. It offered little clarity for concerned parents.
Motshekga appeared to show remorse on Monday during a press briefing when she apologised for the confusion. She said she was “very, very sorry” for informing the country of the postponement at the last minute, but her apology cannot be accepted.
“I was forced into a number of consultations with a number of key stakeholders with a direct interest in basic education, resulting in challenges to continue with the press briefing we had planned,” she said.
Provinces are responsible for implementing education policies and the minister met with provincial MECs and other stakeholders, such as unions and school governing body associations, on Saturday to hear reports about the readiness to reopen schools on Monday.
They heard that only Gauteng and Western Cape had implemented the necessary precautions to make it safe for staff and learners to return. Schools in other provinces had made strides but PPE supplies had been held up, for various reasons outside of the national department’s control, and Rand Water was still trying to ensure 2,634 schools had access to water and sanitation.
Speaking on Monday, Motshekga said it would have been “risky” to have a blanket reopening of schools. She said she had decided on Saturday night with other stakeholders to postpone the reopening of schools, but she didn’t make the announcement until a day later.
“I didn’t want principals to first hear from the media that they can’t receive learners before we speak to them directly,” she said on Monday, explaining that she spent Sunday in conversation with principals’ associations.
Motshekga didn’t explain why she could not inform principals and the public – parents – simultaneously, but she has repeatedly postponed press briefings during the lockdown and failed to provide details of her department’s plan when she has spoken publicly.
The minister suggested she was so busy speaking to principals on Sunday that she could not address the country about whether learners would return to school on Monday, but she also forgot to inform other key groups about the details of the postponement.
Five teacher unions and three school governing body associations had warned Motshekga against reopening schools. They met with her on Saturday.
They argued that schools should not reopen when many hadn’t implemented the necessary health and safety measures. Allowing schools that were prepared to reopen while closing those that weren’t would entrench historical divisions, they argued.
In a statement on Sunday, the unions said the minister promised them an update after their Saturday meeting but it never came. They found out about the postponement like the rest of the country through a terse statement from the Department of Basic Education.
“This is a betrayal of trust and does not bode well for the credibility of the education system,” they said on the failure by the minister to provide an update.
It seems Motshekga also failed to inform the Western Cape government about the official decision to postpone the reopening of schools.
In a statement on Sunday evening, the province’s education MEC, Debbie Schäfer said she was waiting for the minister to announce the way forward in her press briefing scheduled for 6pm.
“Given that this has now been postponed until tomorrow, we can no longer allow our schools to hover in a state of uncertainty,” said Shafer.
Western Cape schools reopened on Monday while schools in the rest of the country remained closed, leading to protests by a small group of parents in Cape Town and a court challenge against the province from the SA Human Rights Commission.
Motshekga could have avoided this confusion if she briefed the nation on Sunday, or earlier. Schools closed due to Covid-19 on 18 March, and the following day the minister announced they would reopen in June.
It’s not the minister’s fault that schools were not ready. Let’s be honest: many schools didn’t have adequate equipment or infrastructure to reopen on 13 January when term one began.
The national department appears to be making progress, but coordinating provincial teams to address long-standing failures to provide water and infrastructure for schools to meet basic norms and standards requirements, let alone the hygiene and physical distancing guidelines, has not been achieved in years and would not be achieved in weeks.
Teachers and parents understand these realities. They expect and fight for improvements – for class sizes to be reduced, for enough textbooks to be provided, for pit toilets to be eradicated. They know how far South Africa’s education system is away from providing quality education for all its children.
“The national lockdown has affected our lives on so many levels. Families are traumatised, jobs are lost, and schooling had grinded to a halt,” said Motshekga’s prepared speech on Monday.
If the minister really knew how the lockdown had affected families, she wouldn’t have waited until the last moment to tell them whether or not their children would be attending school on Monday. Instead, she decided to disrespect them and apologise later. DM
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