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Covid-19: Learners and parents need to play their part in keeping safe during exams

Covid-19: Learners and parents need to play their part in keeping safe during exams
With matric exams coming up, the Western Cape Education Department is working hard to ensure schools will follow strict safety protocols as instructed by the national Department of Basic Education. (Photo: Gallo Images / Roger Sedres)

It is up to learners and their parents to take responsibility for what they do after school, says the Western Cape Education Department.

Ahead of the end-of-year school exams, the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) has called on matric pupils and their parents to consider the Covid-19 risk associated with attending large social events. 

This follows a recent incident when 38 matriculants about to write exams tested positive for Covid-19 after a night out at a bar in Cape Town’s Southern Suburbs. 

Kerry Mauchline, spokesperson for the Western Cape Education MEC, Debbie Schäfer, told Spotlight it was understandable that learners wanted to have fun after a difficult year. 

“But this must be done safely. It is all very well for the department [WCED] to require schools to implement social distancing, mask-wearing, handwashing and the like at schools and during exam sittings. But if learners do not follow these when not at school, they are putting themselves at unnecessary risk. It is up to learners and their parents to take responsibility for what they do after school,” she said.

Following the incident, the department wrote to all schools in the province to once again alert them to the importance of ensuring young people behave in a way that keeps themselves and others safe.

Mauchline said the department had run orientation programmes for learners that included education on the virus and measures to keep themselves safe.

“Schools continue to engage directly with their students, but of course they cannot control what happens outside of the school premises. That is why it is important that both students and parents play their part in ensuring Covid-19 safety and health guidelines are followed.” 

Safety measures in schools

Mauchline said schools continued to implement the detailed Covid-19 prevention measures that had been in place since schools reopened in June.

“These include social distancing, regular cleaning of surfaces, daily screening, handwashing/sanitising, the wearing of masks, and a detailed protocol to be followed when a positive case is reported at a school.” 

Mauchline said 792 learners had tested positive for Covid-19 in the Western Cape since 1 June, which amounts to 0.06% of total learners in the province. She said there were currently 58 active cases of Covid-19 among school staff in the province.

With matric exams coming up, the department is working hard to ensure schools will follow the strict safety protocols as instructed by the national department (DBE). These, she said, include that all learners and staff must wear masks at all times unless directed to take a mask break. 

Mauchline says the concept of mask breaks of between five and 15 minutes every two hours during the school day was introduced by the DBE in its standard operating procedures for schools. These breaks are taken outdoors while maintaining a distance of at least 1m from other people on the school grounds.

During the matric examinations, learners are also allowed a mask break while writing. All learners and staff must follow the 1m physical distancing rule, be screened daily, and sanitise their hands before and after handling their exam papers. Mauchline said the examination venues cannot be used for any other classes or activities, and learners who test positive for Covid-19 during the examinations will have to write them next year in May or June, as directed by the DBE. The same applies to learners who have to isolate due to close contact with a confirmed case of Covid-19.

Dr Karen van Kets, a general practitioner who is part of a group of doctors advising schools on Covid-19 safety, told Spotlight it is not just learners going to bars that can pose a threat, “but any social occasion, even in a private home, has the potential to be an unprotected interaction”.

Van Kets said that apart from spot checks by the Department of Labour and environmental health officials, individuals and families can stay safe by keeping in mind that their risk is determined by their behaviour. They should only go to establishments that are adhering to the guidelines for Covid-19 compliance. There is a hotline to report any businesses not complying.

A parenting issue

Keeping learners from taverns and bars, Van Kets said, “is a parenting issue and the schools don’t really have any control over how scholars spend their free time”.

“There have been communications from schools and in the media to highlight and remind parents and scholars of the implications and consequences of attending social gatherings where masks are removed and the possibility of having an unprotected interaction is increased.” 

Van Kets said there can be more targeted education campaigns and reminders in the public domain. 

“At schools that I am aware of and involved with, there [are many reminders] of the golden rules. The precautionary measures at schools are also working because there has been very little secondary spread within a school setting from the outbreaks at social events,” she pointed out.

Meanwhile, a recent survey found that one in three adults in South Africa does not always wear a mask when leaving home. Van Kets said this may be because there is “some discomfort from wearing a mask that fits incorrectly or is too tight or too restrictive”. 

“The purpose of a cloth or surgical mask worn in public is not to prevent the wearer from being exposed,” she said.

“The purpose is to limit the spread of the virus droplets from someone who has the infection but has no symptoms or [in] the very infectious time, [which is] one or two days before someone shows symptoms. Wearing a mask is not 100% going to stop the spread, but it will drop the chances to single digits and that severely slows the spread of the infection in a community.

“This has been shown to be the case in schools and old age homes where there is very little continued spread of infection where good infection control protocols are followed.”

Protecting older people

Van Kets said that young people are often more worried about their older family members than they are about themselves, especially if they live in a multi-generational household or have parents with comorbidities. 

“In households where teens have been socialising (16th or 18th birthday parties) the parents are the organisers of these events and may not be taking Covid as seriously as they could and then setting the example for their children. 

“There are parents and older people who have Covid fatigue; they are just tired of living with restrictions, and how it has affected their livelihoods has made life very difficult. No one is enjoying this new world we are in. 

“On the whole, teenagers and young adults have a sense of invincibility and risk-taking behaviour which often revolves around socialising. And when we add alcohol, then the poor decision-making will often increase,” she said. 

Van Kets said some young people seem convinced that the threat of Covid-19 is exaggerated by the media, and with the easing of some regulations, some think the virus has been defeated.

“It certainly is not a deadly virus like Ebola with a 93% chance of dying from it,” she said, “but this illness can be serious for some and less so for others. The problem is that so many people, in fact everyone in our communities, are susceptible to be infected in a very short space of time.

“Even with a very small percentage of complicated infections requiring [hospital] admission, the sheer number of people who need medical care is so overwhelming that we cannot tend to the other medical problems – the heart attacks, the diabetics who need their care monitored, the operations that are not life-saving but are necessary.

 “There are so many people who will wait so much longer now to have that lump removed that is actually cancer.” 

Behaviour still the best defence

Echoing Van Kets’s sentiments, the spokesperson for the Western Cape Department of Health, Mark van der Heever, told Spotlight that clear guidelines had been issued to businesses, including pubs, advising on what safety measures need to be maintained to ensure the safety of everyone who attends a gathering. 

“In addition, certain indoor activities must comply with the allotted number of people who can attend – as prescribed by the national regulations. Citizens need to be reminded that any social gathering should be considered as a potential super-spreader event and it is crucial that individuals and businesses need to collectively adhere to social distancing requirements, sanitising and wearing of masks at all times (except for when you eat or drink)”.

Van der Heever said the latest infections in the province were predominantly among younger people. 

“Though younger children and adolescents are at less risk of severe Covid-19, they can get infected. The risk is when they become infected, they can spread it to vulnerable groups in the community such as their parents, grandparents and those with underlying illnesses.”  

The most important point to stress is that our best defence remains our behaviour, Van der Heever said. 

“We cannot let our guard down and we must continue to wear our masks, avoid congregating in places where ventilation is poor, keep our distance of at least 1.5m and to continue washing/sanitising our hands.” DM/MC

This article was produced by Spotlight – health journalism in the public interest. Sign up for our newsletter.

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"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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