Opinionista Heather Jacklin 5 June 2020

Reopening schools is an ill-considered move – ask the teachers, not the economists

Under Covid-19 arrangements, teachers are not seriously being asked to teach. They are being asked to keep children off the street, and feed them, so that their parents can go to work in the same lowly jobs for which their students are destined.

In the last week, the education ministry attempted to reopen schools, encouraged by scientists who have argued that it would be both safe and advisable to do so. However, there has been strong resistance from teacher unions and teacher associations who argue that schools are not yet ready or safe to reopen.

I will suggest that neither scientists and economists nor unions fully grasp the issues at stake. But many teachers on the ground see that this moment is not about if or when to resume business as usual. Rather, it is about ensuring that returning to school, whenever it happens, will not be about resuming business as usual.

The scientists

The position of scientists has been expressed in many recent meetings and reports, including a meeting of the South African Paediatricians’ Association (SAPA). The participants in the meeting, and their subsequent report, argued that:

  • The majority of the population, including teachers and other adults, are going to be infected regardless of whether schools reopen or stay closed;
  • A small minority of adults, including teachers, will die, but closing schools won’t prevent this and is unlikely to reduce the total number who die by more than 1 or 2%;
  • Children will get infected whether they come to school or not, but they won’t die (unless they have serious and rare underlying health conditions), and are unlikely to infect others;
  • The pandemic will not go away this year. It is likely to stretch out over the next year or longer, so if we keep schools closed, we might have to do so for up to two years, not three months.

The report emphasises that there is a cost to not going to school — to the safety and learning of children (including from child abuse), to social and medical services (such as dealing with other possibly greater medical risks such as TB and HIV prevention and treatment), and to the capacity of families to feed and sustain themselves. These risks, they argue, are much greater than the dangers of going to school.

Importantly, the report does also emphasise that the total number of deaths can be reduced by social distancing measures (SDMs) and hygiene practices, and that SDMs should be adopted in schools.

It was clear, in this and other recent presentations by scientists, that there is little appreciation of some of the practical implications of currently proposed arrangements pertaining to reopening schools, in light of which, some of their arguments are weakened.

For example, arrangements outlined by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga on 1 June 2020 suggested that, in order to implement SDMs, it is unlikely that more than about a third of students will be at school at any one time (in public schools), under these measures, leaving in place many of the risks associated with children being out of school.

The scientists do not appreciate how many schools do not have running water. Nor do they consider the costs to an education system that does not have the budget, for example, to employ additional substitute teachers. While scientists cannot be expected to understand these issues, they do need to appreciate that reopening schools under these conditions will not necessarily obviate the negative consequences of schools being closed.

The unions

Teacher unions and teacher associations have not opposed the reopening of schools, in principle. Instead, they have argued that many schools are not yet ready or safe to reopen, in that they have not received the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), do not yet have running water (to be provided by tankers) and have not yet been able to bring in support staff or to reorganise the curriculum and timetable. The report of the National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT) has identified numerous other difficulties such as implementing SDMs where textbooks have to be shared and dealing with ineffective tender systems for PPE delivery.

The implication of the unions’ position is that, if and when national and provincial education departments manage to address these practical difficulties, schools should reopen.

Teachers on the ground

In recent months, I have participated in numerous discussions, debates and chat groups within the schooling and education NGO community. I interpret what I have seen and heard in light of my experience as a teacher and researcher across the country, especially in rural and poorer urban schools.

Of course, there are as many responses as there are teachers and I certainly cannot speak for all of them. But I have observed an increasingly consensual recognition among teachers that this Covid-19 moment has not only exposed inequalities in the schooling system: it has also exacerbated and legitimated these in a way that must be challenged.

The dilemma in which teachers are placed can be compared to that of a surgeon who, having previously been asked to do heart surgery with no equipment other than a rusty pocket knife, is now asked to do this in the dark.

At some point, teachers’ professional commitments  — to teaching and learning; to the broader interests, wellbeing and the future of their learners; and to sustaining conditions of possibility for their practice — demand recognition of the impossibility of teaching, meaningfully, under these conditions. The façade of simply carrying on, of pretending that real teaching and learning can take place under these conditions, will ultimately do more harm than good.

The fabric of schooling is worn to a breaking point in poorer schools, and Covid-19 conditions place extra stress on each thread: Physical spaces are unsafe and do not support teaching and learning. The toilet saga is merely the most extreme example of this. Less dramatic examples such as the inadequate number of classrooms and specialised spaces (such as laboratories), and the continuing prevalence of broken windows and damaged asbestos roofs is equally relevant. And there is simply not enough space for physical distancing.

Teacher numbers are inadequate, and the distribution of teachers is inappropriate. One of many examples is that only a small proportion of early grade classes are taught by foundation phase teachers who have been trained to teach reading and writing, and even fewer can do so in the relevant learners’ mother tongue. Spreading teachers across subdivided groups and bringing in substitute teachers will exacerbate this maldistribution further.

Teachers are now confronting the reality, starkly illustrated by the Covid-19 response, that neither government nor the middle-class and corporate voices that dominate the media, nor scientists and economists, are really concerned about whether they are teaching, or whether it is even possible to teach in poorer schools.

Tender systems intended to supply or maintain facilities and to deliver materials, and equipment have been designed to subordinate educational needs to the development of local economies. In our poorer provinces, annual school building budgets are seldom fully spent. This approach has simply not worked, as money is spent year upon year on classrooms that are not built or renovated and on books (and now PPEs) that are not delivered or are of inferior quality.

The curriculum is over-specified and over-assessed, leaving little time for an intellectually rich pedagogy. Covid-19 conditions demand that the curriculum be pared back even further.

Governance of teachers is top-down, with the emphasis on monitoring and evaluation towards externally identified outcomes rather than support for professional development, judgement and adaptation towards local conditions. And, increasingly, policies — including the rationale for schools reopening — are guided by the mandates of economists rather than the insights of educational experts with experience of the contextual dynamics of schools, learning and teaching.

Teachers in poorer schools are expected to teach against the grain of environments that do not support teaching and learning, and where the large majority of their learners were — already in January — assured of failing, being pushed through, or maybe scraping through with low grades. In addition, teachers have been asked to perform many roles over and above their core pedagogic tasks, to organise nutrition and stand in for non-existent school psychologists, and to allocate teaching time and space to these tasks. Under Covid-19 arrangements, teachers are not seriously being asked to teach. They are being asked to keep children off the street, and feed them, so that their parents can go to work in the same lowly jobs for which their students are destined.

Underpinning all of this is a school financing system that guarantees the ongoing exacerbation of inequalities across the schooling system, and the perpetuation of the conditions described here in poorer schools.

Teachers are now confronting the reality, starkly illustrated by the Covid-19 response, that neither government nor the middle-class and corporate voices that dominate the media, nor scientists and economists, are really concerned about whether they are teaching, or whether it is even possible to teach in poorer schools. And a lack of concern for teaching is a lack of concern for the wellbeing and aspirations of students, as individuals, as citizens and as future participants in the economy.

And teachers are beginning to say: “No!”

Are teachers overreacting to Covid-19? Or is everyone else underreacting to the real risks and threats to students in our schools? DM

Dr Heather Jacklin is a retired teacher and academic in the field of education. She was a senior lecturer in UCT’s School of Education.

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