Opinionista Michael le Cordeur 12 May 2020

Chance to save the school year gets slimmer by the day

If we are serious about the reopening of schools, it will require a combined effort from all.

When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the lockdown seven weeks ago, we realised that it was in everyone’s interest to co-operate. Not only are lives on the line, but our buckling economy could collapse. South Africans united behind the president. There was a national feeling of togetherness.

For three weeks it worked well. Lockdown regulations were obeyed because we had a communal goal. When the president asked us to stay home for two more weeks, we listened. But after five weeks, the wheels started coming off. 

It began with Ramaphosa’s U-turn on the cigarette ban. Opposition parties could not let the opportunity pass to speculate that Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma was the one in control. Despite the logic of freeing prisoners from crowded jails, the president’s decision is being questioned. Once again, South Africa is divided.

In this regard, we can learn from New Zealand. In one of the most successful campaigns against Covid-19, they started with a culture of unity. John F Kennedy said:

“In a time of domestic crisis, men of goodwill should be able to unite regardless of party or politics.”

Now is not the time for party politics or scoring political points.

Moreover, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern communicated clearly and decisively; something which our government still needs to learn. 

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga did not impress with her indecisiveness. Initially, learners would return to school on 6 May. Then she changed her mind and announced that schools would reopen on 1 June subject to the approval of the Command Council. On Sunday she announced that school management teams (SMTs) need no longer report for work on 11 May.

The teachers’ union Sadtu makes demands which are “non-negotiable” These include disinfecting the schools, providing suitable toilet and sanitation facilities, masks, psychological support and sufficient social distancing. Yet when I wrote about these issues in the past, the unions remained silent. Two years ago, I asked on Network24, “when is a school full?” This was followed by an article a year later in Daily Maverick in which I queried the delays in replacing pit latrines.

If someone had listened then… Nevertheless, the demands are legitimate. But it is unfair to saddle the government with all the responsibility. If we are serious about the reopening of schools, it will require a combined effort from all: churches can insist that people abide by the rules of lockdown, businesses can donate sanitiser and unions can convince the medical aids they belong to, to donate masks to learners. Parents can organise themselves into groups and start making masks in the school colours. Even if the state donates two masks to each child, how long will they last?

In Chinese, the word crisis is spelt with two lines: one means danger, the other symbolises opportunity. Whether the schools thus open on 1 June or 1 January, the dangers of Covid-19 will be with us until the end of 2021, according to Professor Shabir Madhi. By focusing only on the dangers, we run the risk of overlooking the opportunities that the crisis offers. We now have the opportunity to rid our education system of all its problems once and for all. At the least, it offers us the opportunity to reform our education system fundamentally.

Meanwhile, the chance that the school year can be saved, gets slimmer by the day. It calls for decisive action and strong leadership which can unite our country. DM

Professor Le Cordeur is the speaker at a webinar presented by Symphonia’s School Leadership Forum on Thursday 14 May, 11:00 to 13:00. The title of his paper: What does the future hold for schools post Covid-19I School principals, SMTs and SGBs which want to join the event can go to the website of Partners for Possibility (www.pfp4sa.org) or send an email to Jessica Batts at [email protected]

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