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There’s a clear lack of confidence in government’s ability to safely reopen schools in less than two weeks


Andrew Ihsaan Gasnolar was born in Cape Town and raised by his determined mother, grandparents, aunt and the rest of his maternal family. He is an admitted attorney (formerly of the corporate hue), with recent exposure in the public sector, and is currently working on transport and infrastructure projects. He is a Mandela Washington Fellow, a Mandela Rhodes Scholar, and a WEF Global Shaper. He had a brief stint in the contemporary party politic environment working for Mamphela Ramphele as Agang CEO and chief-of-staff; he found the experience a deeply educational one.

The lack of detail or any actual plan, coupled with the uncertainty of the past few weeks, has eroded trust in proposals from the Basic Education Department for the reopening of South African schools.

I reflected last week on the broad challenges of South Africa’s government to implement both a rational and effective plan to combat the spread of Covid-19, and the pressure this will create on our fragile society and health system. The “republic’s president must ensure that ministers who require remedial support to do their job are managed for the sake of all South Africans”.  

Unfortunately, the process outlined by the Basic Education Department has failed to provide any real detail or effective plans for employees – or worse, for parents and children – to implement. 

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, accompanied by Deputy Minister Reginah Mhaule and Director-General Hubert Mathanzima Mweli, demonstrated a lack of certainty, confidence, compassion and effectiveness in the department’s evening announcements on Tuesday 19 May.

It is unfortunate that a critical portfolio such as basic education finds itself in a position that necessitates urgent intervention by President Cyril Ramaphosa, but it’s perhaps not surprising given the ongoing challenges and failures of our education system. 

Ramaphosa, together with Motshekga (and other partners), will need to ensure South Africans understand the mitigation measures that are being proposed by the basic education department, and, importantly, how Covid-19 realities will be managed. This is particularly important for chronically under-resourced schools, schools without the appropriate resources or basic infrastructure, schools that cater to vulnerable communities, as well as schools in rural areas. 

The lack of detail or any actual plan, coupled with the uncertainty of the past few weeks, has eroded trust in the proposals from the basic education department. Intensive work will need to be done by Motshekga and her department in order to shore up confidence and to provide clear directives to provincial education departments to ensure that schooling across the country is implemented rationally and carefully. 

After the detail has been provided, Ramaphosa, Motshekga and others will need to build public confidence in the plan, which must focus on communities, parents, children, nonprofits and trade unions. Critically, this must take place on an urgent basis to provide certainty and guidance for the country. 

The realities, both social and economic, necessitate the urgent reopening of the South African economy in an orderly, structured and incremental basis. The Ramaphosa administration, since the president’s announcements last week, has been working with multiple stakeholders in order to transition from lockdown Level 4 to Level 3 during the course of late May/early June. A number of prerequisites are required in order for South Africans to return to work. Primarily this would include workplace readiness, interventions in the public transport sector and the appropriate reopening of the schooling system. 

As we navigate these troubled times, the Ramaphosa administration will need to act more swiftly when it falters. The most urgent intervention required will be to demonstrate capability, rationality and compassion in the thinking, planning and execution by the basic education department. The Gauteng government has acknowledged that the economy has suffered severely, and that government must be seized with important economic interventions, while, at the same time, issues of health and the wellbeing of people are equally crucial and must be tackled simultaneously as calls for a return to work are made. 

The enormity of the crisis facing South Africans cannot be underestimated, and the Ramaphosa administration will need to work a great deal harder to demonstrate that the reopening of schools can be managed effectively. This is essential in a country where many households are headed by grandparents; where the general health of South Africans is reflected in a host of comorbidities coupled with malnutrition and food scarcity; and where our communities have no guiding or binding social compact principles. 

South Africa operates in a fragmented manner – disconnected and often pulling in different directions. This is particularly evident in the resourcing of schools across the country. The measures required to prepare the schooling system must be unprecedented and extensive and led strongly by the basic education department, together with the presidency.

The resistance to schools reopening is not simply rooted in an unwillingness to return to the academic year, but rather it is rooted in fear, uncertainty and concern for the consequences of reopening without an effective plan. 

Schools across Europe, particularly in France and the United Kingdom, have raised their concerns and it is reported that as many as 1,500 primary schools in England will refuse the instruction to reopen on 1 June.  

Our socioeconomic realities necessitate focus, compassion and real engagement, and Motshekga has failed to demonstrate her department’s capacity to tackle the crisis. South Africans cannot make the choice between going to work and subjecting their children to a chaotic return to the classroom. 

The options available to South Africans, and the world at large, are bleak and limited. There is no exact science, magic cure or quick solutions to the global pandemic or the national crisis facing South Africans and their government. However, the road ahead for the Ramaphosa administration and Motshekga is quite clear. There is no time for remedial action or deferred plans. Instead, the department needs to urgently provide the country with a plan to guide the reopening of schools. The tracking and auditing process for personal protective equipment and other Covid-19 mitigation measures was outlined briefly by Motshekga in her media briefing. However, it will take more than that to fully prepare schools across the country.

Schools will need clear guidance on how classrooms are to be restructured; how teaching will operate on a rotational basis; how learner transport is operated on a multi-shift basis; and what must happen to ensure surfaces and facilities are continuously cleaned and all persons screened. 

The list of interventions will constantly expand, and the weight of these additional requirements on an already overburdened and weakened education system could cause chaos. Information needs to be centralised. Too many teachers are getting conflicting information and advice from social media sources and other platforms.

Psychological and mental health issues need to be taken into account. It is not only the children who are at risk – who have been isolated from the education system, deprived of structure and school meals and separated from their friends. 

Many of the staff returning to schools will also feel fear and anxiety.  

Our schooling system is ill-equipped to manage and navigate these very troubled waters. It requires massive transformation and Motshekga’s department, instead of demonstrating capability to lead this reimagining, has sown confusion and mistrust at the worst possible time. DM


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