Anxiety as schools reopen

Grade 7s and Grade 12s are required to go back to school on Monday June 1. Staff at Crestway High were on duty on Monday May 25.

School staff have had mixed reactions to the announcement that Grade 7s and Grade 12s will go back to school on Monday June 1.

When Southern Mail visited Crestway High School on Monday May 25, teachers and other staff were preparing classrooms and setting up a plan for when the Grade 12s return.

Principal Vernon Safer said the school’s three matric classes would be divided into five groups to facilitate physical distancing to stop the spread of Covid-19.

“All teachers, except for five who are ill, are here and we are quite willing to take on this challenge,” he said.

“We have allowed teachers time and space to raise their fears or any questions that they may have had. A new timetable has been set and we received most of our cleaning material and personal protective equipment (PPE).

“We are fully in favour of continuing with the school year. If we do not start the term our children are going to miss out on the school year.”

Mr Safer added that remote learning programmes would be in place for children whose parents who did not want to send them to school because they had underlying conditions which may make them more susceptible to the virus.

“We are busy putting that in place and teachers will be able to help pupils who are remotely working so that they do not fall behind,” said Mr Safer.

Many of the staff at schools in the areas Southern Mail reports on, were attending meetings on Monday May 25 to discuss the way forward following the refusal by the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) to send members back to school, citing concerns about the education department’s readiness for the reopening of schools.

Provincial secretary Jonavon Rustin said the announcement to reopen schools had been made notwithstanding the increased infection rate in the country and the spike of positive cases reported in the Western Cape.

“The Western Cape Education Department (WCED) has consistently indicated that the province is ready to receive its teachers and learners, of which Sadtu Western Cape is not convinced,” he said.

“The WCED has taken shortcuts with regard to cleaning of schools, scanning of teachers, and provision of PPEs.”

Mr Rustin said the union conducted daily surveys to determine the readiness of the province and disputed the WCED’s statement that they were ready to receive teachers and pupils on May 25 and 1 June respectively. “Our survey which concluded on Sunday May 24 gives a clear indication that schools are not ready and the WCED have not delivered on the union’s non-negotiables including the fumigation and disinfection of schools,” said Mr Rustin.

The union called on teachers not to report to schools on the dates given by the WCED.

Noel Isaacs, principal of Floreat Primary School, who serves on the school governing body (SGB) forum, and is the Sadtu chairperson for the metro south region, said the government was not taking into account teachers’ and parents’ fears.

“This thing is bigger than all of us and at the moment I cannot guarantee parents that their children are safe at schools. Yes, we need to get to a time we have to carry on with schooling because it is said the virus will be with us for a couple of years but this is too soon,” said Mr Isaacs.

“The schools are not ready.”He added that there were schools which hadn’t yet received their PPE.

“Different provinces are following different approaches. We also want the Department of Labour to come around to the schools and certify that the schools are compliant with Covid-19 safety regulations and that they have trained screeners at all the schools.

“There are 12 teachers at Floreat who have co-morbidities and there are supposed to be substitutes. When are these replacements coming?” asked Mr Isaacs.

“They are rushing the opening of the school and we are heeding the call of the union and will wait for what the next step will be.” Education MEC Debbie Schäfer said the department was facing an unprecedented challenge which could not have been anticipated – with no blueprint.

“There is much anxiety among all sectors of our population, which is understandable given the nature of the coronavirus,” she said.

“Some people are also struggling to understand that on the one hand, they have been told to stay home and isolate themselves from society, yet now they are being told to go to schools, or send their children to school.

“The experts have told us that the virus cannot be stopped, only slowed down, and many people will be infected. That is not something we like to hear, but it is an unfortunate reality. Children are missing out on important parts of the curriculum which can affect the rest of their schooling and their future earning capacity,” she said.

“We cannot keep schools closed indefinitely. So, taking into account all the risks, and the best medical advice available, we have been making plans for the re-opening of schools.”

To prepare for the opening of schools the WCED has provided schools with hygiene packs including masks for staff and pupils, non-contact thermometers to help screen pupils and staff; schools have been cleaned with bleach, and have engaged with schools about remote learning for pupils with illnesses and staff with co-morbidities.

Responding to the union’s request to have screening teams at the school, Ms Schäfer said screening was a simple process that involved asking basic questions and taking temperatures with a non-contact digital thermometer pointed at the forehead.

“This requires no medical expertise. In our view, the most practical solution is for staff at schools to undertake this task.

“This is going to have to be done every day with every child and staff member. It is important that schools devise a method to implement this as quickly as possible, to minimise loss of teaching time,” she said.

To maintain physical distancing classes will be divided to adhere to the required 1.5m between pupils.

“The difficulty arises when more grades return to school, and space becomes a problem. One of the key tasks of our returning senior management teams is to develop plans to teach in a new way, whilst the appropriate physical distance is maintained.

“We have no intention of relaxing the physical distancing requirement at schools. When this maximum number is exceeded in the phased return, we are currently determining which option will be implemented – be it grades attending class on alternate days, the use of school halls as classrooms, or any of the many helpful proposals we have received from officials and the public alike. But we will not reduce or remove the physical distancing requirement,” said Ms Schäfer.

The curriculum has also been trimmed to ensure that the essential concepts required for progression to the next grade are taught. Matrics will, however, progress as normal with catch-up plans to be implemented and school transport service providers must ensure that the necessary sanitation measures are adhered to.