Opinionista Koketso Moeti 23 July 2020

Teachers and teachers’ unions are not the enemy

Framing the issue as simply a matter of ‘teachers who don’t want to work but want to get paid vs guardians who don’t have an alternative for childcare’ is extremely unhelpful at best and destructive at worst.

As countries around the world ease lockdown restrictions, the debate about when and how to open schools rages. South Africa is no different. Since schools in the country reopened on 8 June, with different grades being staggered back in, debate around the issue has been fierce. 

Weeks before schools partially reopened, teachers’ unions and school governing bodies rang alarm bells about schools not meeting the Department of Basic Education’s (DBE) own conditions for the safe reopening of schools. Minister Angie Motshekga failed to respond empathetically to these concerns, instead saying that the department is “not forcing anything down your throat”, giving caregivers the option to keep children at home.

More recently, as teachers’ unions continue to object to the gradual reopening of schools, they are increasingly being vilified. For example, Motshekga reportedly asked unions if teachers should still be paid if schools are closed again. 

Researcher Dr Nic Spaull, who has been a prominent feature of the debate about reopening schools, recently wrote, “By refusing to work, teachers are risking the lives of children and undermining other parts of society that rely on schools at this critical time.”

But framing the issue as simply a matter of “teachers who don’t want to work but want to get paid vs guardians who don’t have an alternative for childcare” is extremely unhelpful at best and destructive at worst. What it does is attempt to pit people who neither created the crisis nor informed the response, against each other. And most importantly, it scapegoats teachers for the DBE’s failures, which is particularly unfair, as the issues raised by teachers have centred on concern for not only their own safety, but also that of learners and workers.

Knowing that schools could not stay closed forever, especially given the government’s own warnings that “this virus will continue to be with us for some time,” which came even before the lockdown began, the DBE failed to use the time provided by the lockdown to prepare schools. 

The vilification of teachers also dismisses many of their very valid concerns. There seems to be an underlying assumption of the uniformity of schools and their assumed readiness, which is simply not true.

Before the decision was made to reopen schools, the DBE should have started a process of engaging with teachers, learners, caregivers, and communities, who not only have important contextual information about their schools, but whose support and confidence are crucial for the success of any plan to reopen. 

The current crisis is not only a reckoning with the department’s current failures, but also its historic failure to provide adequate infrastructure and sanitation for schools and the ongoing inequalities in the country’s education system.

The vilification of teachers also dismisses many of their very valid concerns. There seems to be an underlying assumption of the uniformity of schools and their assumed readiness, which is simply not true.

Sara Black, an education researcher, teacher and policy analyst, draws a useful distinction between “fortified schools”, which “have different types of buffers and insurances so that normal knocks don’t interrupt teaching and learning,” and “exposed schools”, which “are vulnerable to any knock, and – due to their socioeconomic situation AND often their physical location – they are subject to a lot more knocks to boot”.

Add to that the reports about subpar sanitisers, schools having tanks, but no water and learners being sent home because of a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) in some schools. It’s hard to believe that the risks would be the same across different types of schools, with different levels of access to the necessary resources to keep safe.

During its bi-weekly media briefing, the World Health Organisation (WHO) stated that “reopening schools in any country is only safe in the context of low community transmissions of Covid-19”, which is simply not the case in South Africa. 

Dr Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, noted that children being exposed to the virus is a “cause for concern, as the long-term effects of the virus on children are still unknown”. 

The importance of evaluating each context individually and making evidence-based decisions was also emphasised during the briefing.

As Spaull writes, parents shouldn’t be forced to choose between going to work and taking care of their children, which is really the same thing – to eke out a living to feed one’s children is one part of taking care of them. 

Spaull notes that “there are literally millions of parents who have to go back to work but don’t know what to do with their children”, affirming that teachers are not being expected to teach, but rather “being asked to keep children off the street, and feed them”. While this may be necessary, there are a few problems with this. 

First, it assumes that parents with no childcare options want to send their children to school. There may be parents with limited childcare options who are sending their children to school merely because it is posed as the only solution and they are not being adequately engaged on the reopening of schools or potential alternatives – which they may have ideas on.

Second, it downplays the fact that teachers too have families they are concerned about, who may potentially be put at risk too if their safety is not prioritised.

To be sure, given the novelty of the virus, none of us can expect certainty from any decision made, and the ability to be responsive to new information is essential. But it is, however, reasonable to expect engagement with learners, teachers, school staff and guardians themselves – especially guardians who would be disadvantaged by schools not opening and those at disadvantaged schools – rather than impose reopening plans that these critical groups have no confidence in.

I am no expert on education, but as the parent of two school-going children, who is just as worried about the situation and the uncertainty it brings as other parents are, I take the concerns of teachers’ unions very seriously and oppose any attempt to vilify them as “undermining the pandemic response”, given their crucial role. Treating their fears as irrational and silly and forcing them to return to work when they are raising valid concerns, fundamentally undermines any attempt to reopen schools safely.

As Spaull writes, parents shouldn’t be forced to choose between going to work and taking care of their children, which is really the same thing – to eke out a living to feed one’s children is one part of taking care of them. 

But vilifying the very same people who are integral to the reopening of schools or any other alternative education plan working is also not a solution. DM

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