Principals plead for help

Protesters opposite Parliament raised placards asking the government to address their challenges.

Despite the president’s announcement that schools will be closed for four weeks, with Grade 12s returning after a one week break and Grade 7s after two weeks, a protest outside Parliament went ahead on Friday July 24.

President Cyril Ramphosa addressed the nation on Thursday July 23, to announce that schools were going to be closed from July 27 to August 24. However, he said Grade 12 pupils and teachers will only take a one-week break, returning to school on August 3 while Grade 7s would return on August 10.

He added that, as a result of the disruptions caused by the pandemic, the current academic year would be extended beyond the end of 2020.

Just days before the announcement, Heathfield High principal Wesley Neumann, and a few other principals had emailed a memorandum to the president, highlighting the challenges they had been facing.

Responding to the president’s announcement, Mr Neumann said he was happy with the “partial victory as it allows us more time with Grade 12s”.

He said the school had faced challenges when the Grade 11s returned at the start of July. “We have three cleaners and two were off with comorbidities and we only had one cleaner to clean not only 30 classrooms but other facilities (which) must be cleansed on a regular basis.”

He said the school wrote to the parents and considered the safety of their children.

“One hundred parents heeded to the call to keep children at home. However, the school is open and we can’t turn the children away.”

Mr Neumann said the main concern was to be safe during the peak of infections and “we haven’t reached our peak yet”.

“Why keep the schools open?” he said, adding that particularly at risk were grandparents with comorbidities who took care of school-going children.

Children who returned to school, he said, were “unresponsive and tense”.

Another challenge is that the school has not been deep cleaned, he said.

“We are not certified safe. And although we have received PPE (personal protective equipment), such as a 25-litre drum of sanitiser, we have to buy our own spray bottles.”

And with only about 40% of the school fees coming in, they do not have the finances to buy additional resources or equipment.

Nkosana Dolopi, South African Teachers Democratic Union (SATDU) deputy general secretary, said the union “cautiously welcomed” the announcement by the president of a “four-week non-physical contact break in order to save lives during this winter period”.

He said the announcement followed a “persistent call” made by the recognised teacher unions, pupil organisations, school governing bodies and some sectors of society for schools to be closed immediately.

“It is the union’s strong view that the Department of Basic Education (DBE) will have to consult organised labour and seek an agreed upon way forward in relation to the published Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for the closing and reopening of schools. The inconsistent application of the SOPs has led to many challenges in the schools that have consequently made it difficult for those institutions to be compliant.

“This conversation between the DBE, organised labour and other stakeholders should be prioritised from July 27 to avoid similar challenges upon the reopening of schools again,” he said.

Meanwhile the Western Cape Education Department has criticised the decision to close schools.

Education MEC Debbie Schäfer said arguments from governing body associations, NGOs and medical specialists highlighting the positives of children being at school and the negatives of not being at school had been ignored because of “political expediency”.

“It is, plainly and simply, capitulation to teacher unions, and an attempt, once again, to bring every province down to the lowest common denominator because ANC-run provinces have not used the lockdown period to adequately prepare their health systems, and have decades of neglect in fixing their school infrastructure,” said Ms Schäfer.

She added that the department supported having a break for two weeks on the basis that many teachers and pupils have been working during the lockdown.

“It has been an anxious time putting new processes in place, and there is no real holiday provided in the current calendar for the rest of the year. This should be a complete break for people to rest and anxiety levels to dissipate. But an additional four weeks is going to cause immeasurable damage to our children and our economy,” she said.

“I believe that this decision is going to cost South Africa dearly in the future, and it is once again the poor who are going to suffer the most.”