Despite many assurances to the contrary last week, Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshkega, has now admitted that schools across the country are not ready to receive learners. She has pushed back the proposed date for re-opening until 8 June 2020. Reasons offered were the lack of PPEs, water and sanitation, and the time needed to rectify this. This sorry state of affairs is what we, as the IPF, predicted, and feared.
Despite what the Minister has said, we believe it was the active role played by teacher unions, united in their call for schools to remain closed – and supported by SGBs – that put real pressure on the Minister to delay the reopening of schools for another week.
Now that the delay is official, the first question to be asked is, will schools in fact be ready to receive learners – and teachers – on 8 June?
As a member of the Portfolio Committee on Education, I personally conducted oversight visits to five schools on Monday – not one of which was ready to receive learners. The school principals I spoke to expressed both their frustration, and confusion: promises were made by the DBE regarding the supply of PPEs, and water… but none materialised. The promised sanitisers were either not received, or not sufficient.
I too was once a school principal, and I paid a visit to my former school on Monday. When I left, almost 30 years ago, the school had yet to complete a block of toilets for learners. Imagine my horror when I discovered this very same block of toilets – never completed – and now in ruins. How can learners at this school be expected to practice good hygiene without functioning toilets?
I also asked one of the school principals about the disinfection of the school – as per the DBE regulations, and required as a condition for re-opening. He advised that he had been forced to pay for disinfection services using school monies, as no-one from the DBE had come to perform such services.
I will visit schools again on 8 June, once the learners have returned, but it is my belief that one week is not enough time to rectify years of neglect. Water and sanitation are a mess in most schools, and it will take time to restore these essential services.
Regardless of whether the DBE is able to meet the new deadlines for the provision of PPEs, and sufficient water and sanitation, there are many other practical obstacles that are of great concern…
The issue of social distancing must be raised: although there might be sufficient space in schools when only one Grade returns, what happens when more learners return to the classroom? Schools will soon run out of the necessary space.
Further, learner transport is another high-risk area. Are learners going to be screened prior to getting into taxis, or busses, or school busses? Will these vehicles be regularly sanitised? Will all passengers be required to wear masks? We fear that many learners are at great risk of being infected even before they arrive on school premises.
Once they do arrive, who will conduct the screenings? And if the such persons have been appointed – and cleared to work with children – how long will it take to screen hundreds of learners? Surely this process, which involves each child having their temperature taken, and then asked a series of questions, will take several minutes per learner? Not only will they potentially be standing in long queues outside the school grounds, posing possible security concerns, but with winter approaching, they will could also be exposed to severe temperatures, rain, and more.
And what of those children whose parents choose not to allow them to return to school? Who must parents contact to ask for permission? And, if this is granted, what happens to each child when it is safe to return to school? Do they lose their place at said school, and will parents need to start the admissions process again from scratch?
Why is the DBE in such a rush to get learners back to school? Would it not be wiser to asses school readiness after the COVID-19 pandemic has reached its peak – something, we are informed, South Africa has yet to experience? Is the Department concerned that they will have to carry the blame for the time lost for learning?
In light of all of our concerns, we as the IFP would like to ask: would it not be easier to come up with a strategy to make up time in the classroom, rather than having to face a situation where thousands of learners are sick, or indeed, lose their lives to COVID-19?
Hon. S Ngcobo, MP
IFP Secretary General
082 902 4508