Postponement of schools’ reopening welcomed

The South African Democratic Teachers Union says schools are only safe to open after a 14-day decrease in infections.

With no clear indication of when the second wave of Covid-19 infections will peak, parents have welcomed the Department of Basic Education’s postponement of the start of the public school year.

Last week it was announced that public schools – which were to be reopened next Wednesday, January 27 – will only open on Monday February 15.

However with the country’s number of positive cases standing at nearly 1 340 000 and 37 105 reported deaths as at Sunday January 17, there has been push-back from teachers about when they’re supposed to go back at schools.

Basic Education Deputy Minister Dr Reginah Mhaule said the coronavirus had turned lives upside down, and that decision-making for a sector as large as basic education, had become a difficult exercise involving consultations with the Council of Education Ministers (CEM), the Heads of Education Departments Committee (HEDCOM), the national school governing body associations, teacher unions and other stakeholders.

With various things to consider, including the pressure on the health system over the past few weeks because of the increase in infections, the National Coronavirus Command Council and Council of Education Ministers (CEM), decided on the postponement of two weeks.

School management, however, will be required to return to schools on Monday January 25, teachers on Monday February 1 and pupils on Monday February 15.

“CEM took this difficult decision, having considered all factors as backed up by research and statistics, regarding the current state of the health system. The priority remains saving lives,” said Dr Mhaule.

The marking of the 2020 National Senior Certificate (NSC) examination scripts has also been affected, delaying the date of the release of matric results with some markers having died and others withdrawing from the marking process because they fear contracting the virus.

Further consultations will take place with stakeholders.

Mother of two, Angelique Southgate from Steenberg said she welcomed the postponement because it gave everyone involved more time to assess the situation.

“We have the most new cases per day we have ever had so the decision to delay the school year is a good one. It needs to be looked at again when the time is closer because we don’t know if the cases would be even worse then,” she said.

“The important thing is that our children as well as their teachers are safe and if that means delaying the school year even more then that is what needs to happen. Saving lives is more important.”

Noel Isaacs, from the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) Southern Suburbs district said teachers were unhappy about their planned return because of the spike in infections.

“On a daily basis we hear of at least two teachers who have died because of Covid-19. We don’t know how many teachers are infected at the moment and how many will be self isolating by the time schools are supposed to start,” said Mr Isaacs.

Lavender Hill High School principal Fuad Viljoen said the latest announcement was to have been expected because the variant in the strain of the virus was more contagious now than before.

”Education is very important but saving lives is more important. On the one hand, teachers, especially those over the age of 50, are worried and we’re losing a lot of valuable and experienced teachers to the virus who fall in that category.“

On the other hand, he said, he was concerned about the academic programme and getting pupils started, especially the new Grade 12 class.

“Last year priority was given to the class of 2020 so the new matriculants and the rest of the grades are already starting with a backlog.

“If we keep the school at half capacity like we did last year, with only about 25 pupils in a class and maintain social distancing and safety protocols we should hopefully be able to go on with the academic year. There are so many things to consider so we will take it day by day and pray the staff and pupils are safe,” said Mr Viljoen.

In a statement released by SADTU, general secretary Mugwena Maluleke said the union welcomed the department’s decision but did not agree with the call for management and teachers to report for duty from January 25.

“The unions were not consulted. We wonder what informed this decision because teachers are as vulnerable to the pandemic as the learners. This shows the department has no regards for the lives of the workers who are the ones who are infected and overwhelming the hospitals”.

The union has taken the stance that schools are only safe to open once the rate of infections had declined for 14 consecutive days.