Opinionista Michael le Cordeur 5 January 2021

Covid-19 second wave forces a rethink on the reopening of schools on 25 January

We all knew a second Covid-19 wave was on its way. Knowing how the virus had affected schools, education authorities were able to plan for 2021, but no one could have foreseen that it would be so extensive and so much more deadly.

There is great concern over the rising number of Covid-19 infections and deaths among teachers. In Gauteng alone, 32 teachers died in one week. According to Die Son newspaper, the Western Cape has lost 78 teachers over the past two weeks and 573 are fighting for their lives. Countrywide, 1,659 teachers have already died from the virus. There are fears of a shortage of teachers when the school year opens.

On Monday, 45,000 teachers began marking millions of matric exam papers. From experience, I know these marking centres can be highly populated. If markers suddenly fall ill, and some do not turn up for fear of contracting Covid-19, there will be another crisis facing us.

During the peak of the first wave in July and August 2020, schools closed for a month when infections rose to 140,000. During the past month, a new peak was reached. When the president announced stricter lockdown regulations on 5 December, there were 44,084 infections countrywide. We are now approaching 170,000. The number of infections, especially in KwaZulu-Natal (63,690), the Western Cape (42,388) and Gauteng (32,235), is of great concern. It raises the question of whether schools should reopen in these provinces on 25 January. 

In 2021, most schools will still operate on the principle that pupils attend on alternate days. One union has already said it doesn’t want to start the year with the same battles as 2020.

But the question is still whether all schools are ready for the second wave. Problems that will rise again include: Do all pupils have at least two masks? Do all schools have running water and sufficient sanitation facilities if pupils and teachers contract the virus? Has any progress been made to give more rural and township schools access to online classes? Is the current minister fit for her task?

I do believe children must be in school, but can we honestly say all children and teachers are safe when schools reopen? It is clear that during the second wave, children get sick too and even die. If more teachers get sick and die, we can expect an exodus of teachers, which could paralyse the education system. That is why we should reconsider opening the schools on 25 January.

Teachers and health workers were the heroes of 2020. For that we honour and thank them. Unfortunately, the task of teachers will not be less daunting in 2021. May the lessons learnt in that year offer solutions to this year’s challenges.

Stay safe! DM

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