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We all need to get behind Angie Motshekga to ensure schools can reopen safely and efficiently

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Prof Michael le Cordeur is the Vice-Dean Teaching and Learning in the Education Faculty at the University of Stellenbosch.

There was always certainty that schools would reopen. It was just as important to save the school year as it was to ensure that the reopening of schools would not spread Covid-19 further. Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga gave a strong performance as she addressed the issue.

What a powerful performance by Angie Motshekga. I have not recently, if ever, seen the Minister of Basic Education speak so definitively, so clearly and with such conviction. After 20 minutes it was over. But not before she had condemned the vandalism at 1,577 schools.

Vandalism of the schools is the reason only a limited quantity of sanitiser was delivered to schools during the past week. It was intended for the principals and their management teams. Given the large-scale vandalism, it would be irresponsible to deliver large amounts to schools, Motshekga explained.

The minister made it clear that she and her department have consulted widely. All unions, school governing body representatives and the Cabinet were consulted before the National Command Council approved the decision to reopen schools. There is thus no legitimacy crisis. But experience tells me that the last word has not yet been written about this.

Comorbidities

It is a fact that some learners (and teachers) have underlying diseases (like asthma, heart disease, hypertension or diabetes), the so-called comorbidities. Therefore, it is important that parents inform the school timeously if a learner has an underlying disease so that suitable steps can be taken. During question time, the minister explained that a principle that is accepted worldwide is that you cannot keep all the schools in a country closed because a few learners suffer from asthma. The education project must go ahead, especially since the virus will still be with us for at least another three years.

Scientific basis

Responding to a question about what the scientific basis for the decision was, the minister emphasised that these are uncharted waters, and that her department has relied heavily on the expertise of the medical advisory council of the Department of Health. She quoted from Unicef’s framework for reopening of schools to motivate the decision. According to the framework, breaks in tuition time can have a devastating effect on a child’s ability to learn. The longer a child is out of school, the lower the chance that the child will return.

“We learned this from the 2010 strike. Many of our learners never returned,” Motshekga said.

According to Unicef, children from poor households are five times more likely not to complete primary school than children from affluent homes. To keep schools closed for too long increases the chances of teen pregnancy, sexual exploitation, violence and child marriages. “Children are children. While we are talking here, they are playing outside,” she added.

Something the minister did not mention, but which was pointed out to me by researchers at the University of Stellenbosch today, is the indication that to date 16 people have died in the age group 0–40 out of a population of 40 million. In the group 0-20 so far there have been no fatalities. In addition, South Africa has a relatively young population with an average age of 27, which is an important consideration because younger people have a stronger resistance, according to the report.

Food and water

The DBE has reached agreement with the Department of Human Settlements and Sanitation according to which water must be provided timeously where required. This is important for regular handwashing. This week, images were shown on TV of broken water tanks which had also been incorrectly installed. The DBE can do better.

Motshekga also mentioned that the school feeding scheme had been adapted for the phased return to schools. From 1 June the feeding scheme will be available to all grade 7 and 12 learners. Suppliers will be supplied with the necessary personal protection equipment (PPEs) like gloves and masks. The feeding scheme will relieve the need at schools and should ease the pressure on the supply of food parcels and the dangers that accompany the process.

Curriculum

The question remains, however, whether the curriculum can be delivered successfully, especially as far as matrics are concerned. The minister made it clear that exam papers for matrics have already been set. The matric curriculum will thus not be watered down or “trimmed”. For the other grades, reduction of the curriculum is apparently indeed a reality. Exactly how, will become clear in the next few weeks. The adjusted school calendar will be published in the Government Gazette soon, with the new dates and holidays. Where the final examination was written in October and November in the past, it is clear that schools will close much later (I predict 15 December) and that next year will also be affected (read schools will open earlier to catch up on lost time).

Social distancing

Although it was not referred to by name, it is clear that overcrowded classes will be a huge challenge regarding maintaining social distancing, for which the minister does not yet have the full answer. This is the reason for the phased approach to reopening. To quote the minister: When the Grade 12 learners return, they will have the whole school to themselves, and the same goes for the Grade 7s in primary schools. What is not clear is what happens when all the other grades return. There will be a large-scale hunt for alternative accommodation in church and community halls. Special schools will have a different approach because their classes are much smaller.

How can parents help?

The coronavirus has forced South Africa to think anew about education. Various aspects of our education system will have to change fundamentally. One aspect which must be especially addressed, is whose responsibility education is. An old African saying, “it takes a whole village to raise a child”, was never as true as now. We can no longer sit with our hands folded and wait for the minister. This goes for teachers’ unions, parents and the broader community. Parents have ducked their responsibility for too long, especially in the poorer schools. Poverty is no longer an excuse. Your principal contribution is that which you can do for the school in your neighbourhood because the learners are the children of us all.

Among the tasks which are now needed, is the deep cleaning of the school. This is one aspect with which unemployed dads can help. Maybe it becomes a permanent post. Volunteers can also help with the screening of learners as teachers will have their hands very full. There are many aunties on the Cape Flats making Cape Minstrel outfits. Why not also make masks? Just think what an exciting unifying action it can be if everyone is “masked” in the school colours?

Not everyone supports the minister’s plans. Some experienced educators with whom I have spoken are sceptical, especially because the education department does not have a good record of service delivery. The minister was a bit irritated by a remark about this during question time.

“Mistakes can be fixed, and is it so wrong to admit your mistakes and make an honest effort to do better?” she hit back.

In closing, across the world it is clear that countries which have had significant success in containing the virus did three things right: they communicated clearly; they consulted with all role players; and leaders could rely on 100% support from their citizens. So far Angie Motshekga ticks two of the three boxes. The third one is in our hands, the citizens of the country.

It is now our turn to do our part. Let us work together in the belief that a safe, educated and united South Africa awaits us.

But know this also: the country is holding its breath. DM

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