It is unclear how schools in the province - 1 598 of which use pit latrines - will meet basic sanitation standards. Some parents want to keep their children at home, but face bureaucracy.
The Eastern Cape is dotted with schools without running water that use mud buildings and pit latrines. From time to time, when a tragedy occurs - such as the death of Viwe Jali of Bizana, who drowned when she fell into a pit latrine at school - they come into the spotlight. But mostly, the learners are forgotten by the outside world.
Now a political tussle has erupted between parents, teachers' unions and the Department of Basic Education over the date for reopening schools during the lockdown. Grade seven and matric pupils were supposed to return on 1 June 2020, with other grades slowly being phased in after that. This date was initially put on hold, but Minister Angie Motshekga reconfirmed it at a press conference on 19 May.
But in the Eastern Cape, it is unlikely that hundreds of schools will meet the minimum standards for reopening.
Mathanzima Mweli, the director general at the Department of Basic Education, told parliament last month that there are 3 500 schools in South Africa with pit toilets. About 40% of these, or 1 598, are in the Eastern Cape. This announcement came almost two years after President Cyril Ramaphosa launched the sanitation appropriate for education drive to "save lives and restore the dignity of tens of thousands of our nation's children", a campaign that Ramaphosa said would "spare generations of young South Africans the indignity, discomfort and danger of using pit latrines and other unsafe facilities in our schools". The Eastern Cape provincial government was given an initial target of upgrading the sanitation facilities at 164 schools, but in the 2019/2020 financial year, it only managed to upgrade the toilet facilities at 44.
On 30 April, the government published new guidelines for the reopening of schools during the pandemic, which included compulsory masks for pupils, hand sanitiser to be provided by the schools and "hand washing soap, gloves ... and thermometers". Government said that where there are no taps in schools, the Department of Water and Sanitation will install water tanks and fill them from water trucks. Tens of thousands of portable toilets will be supplied to schools that have pit latrines.
But it is not yet clear if the personal protective equipment (PPE) will be delivered on time. Earlier in May, Themba Kojana, superintendent general at the Eastern Cape education department, sent a letter to school principals admitting the delivery of PPE had been delayed. Kojana said the department had been "obliged to place orders with National Treasury for the provisioning [of] PPE". But the PPE purchased by treasury had been "reprioritised for the Department of Health only". All provincial departments were directed to "implement emergency procurement processes to procure locally". At last count in 2013, the number of learners in Eastern Cape schools - and thus the number of children needing PPE - was 1.8 million.
Equal Education general secretary Noncedo Madubedube said that Motshekga and all education MECs "must make public comprehensive plans explaining which schools are being provided with emergency water and toilets, and what the timelines are for delivering these services in each province. Weekly progress reports are crucial!"
That has not happened. But at her 19 May press conference, Motshekga said schools would be ready and appealed to the public to wait until 1 June before judging school readiness. She said there was enough PPE, including masks and sanitisers, to supply all pupils and teachers in the country, but they had not been delivered yet because of the threat of theft.
Unions weigh in
But last week teachers unions South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) and National Professional Teachers' Organisation of South Africa (Naptosa) said they had conducted their own survey of 9 365 school principals that showed schools were not ready to reopen.
"As unions we have too often seen that information fed by officials to provincial departments and from provincial departments to the minister do not reflect the actual, ground-level situation," the unions wrote in a joint statement.
"Vague and general statements like, 'The first consignments have arrived in schools and more deliveries will be made as time progresses'; and, 'All indications are that the preconditions for the reopening of schools will be met', might sound positive, but in fact say very little. Evading the realities ... is a cause for concern."
Their survey found that "79% of the respondents have not received regulations on how to deal with health and safety issues, 60% report that their circuit manager has not yet been in touch with them and 92% of respondents report that offices have not yet been cleaned and sanitised".
Accusing Motshekga of a "lack of human-centred leadership", the unions said they were "making it clear that if PPE had not arrived at schools and the required cleaning had not taken place when teachers return on Monday, they are not to endanger their lives by entering such schools".
Saving our children
Save our Children is a new, broad-based movement that advocates that all children and teachers remain out of school for the rest of the 2020 academic year. Using the slogans "Rather miss a grade than dig a grave", "Rather promote to the next grade than dig a grave" and "Your child is my child", #SaveourChildren has 24 000 members, mostly concerned teachers and parents. Members of the movement have vowed not to send any of their children back to school on 1 June and have called for a mass stay away.
"All parents must refuse to send their children to school until we are convinced that it is safe to do so," said Save our Children's founder, community activist Abdul Karriem Matthews. "We call on all teachers to report for duty but refuse to teach until the state guarantees the safety of all teachers. The state must open parliament with immediate effect on 1 June. We want to see every minister, member of parliament and ward councillor at work. These politicians are gambling with the lives of our children and teachers while they [are] ensconced safely in their homes funded by us, the taxpayers."
Members of the group voiced their opposition to the opening date. Michelle Meyer said, "I don't think I'm sending my kids to this. I don't think so. I love my kids too much to send them out to die. God be with us all." Petunia Bailey wrote, "The saddest part about this whole thing is, what happens when your child contracts the coronavirus, they will be whisked off to a certain place and isolated where we will have no contact with them."
In an open letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa, former ANC parliamentary caucus staffer Zaytoon Kafaar said, "I refuse to send my daughter to school; unless I am totally convinced that your government has done all it can to ensure that our children are safe. I don't care what the School's Act says; you can take me to court. You feel it is safe for our kids to be bunched into small classrooms, and yet it is not safe for us to attend church. How does that make sense? NCC and cabinet meetings are conducted virtually. Parliament meetings are done via Zoom. So you remain in your safe ivory tower, but our kids have to brave the front line of the fight? Looks very much like a new age experiment of unnatural selection."
Another group, Parents against the Opening of Schools, said it hired attorney Jerald Andrews immediately after Motshekga announced the reopening. Andrews took up a case against the Western Cape education department when it decided to close several schools in that province in 2012.
"We will lodge an urgent interdict in the next few days to prevent the minister from implementing her decision ... the decision will then be taken on review. We will have ongoing communication, and appeal for a united front of parents to stop this irrational decision by the Department of Education," said the group's legal team member Vanessa le Roux.
Motshekga acknowledged that many parents would not want to send their children back to school on 1 June. But she muddied the waters by saying that parents of these children would have to apply to the department to register as homeschoolers, which means the children would have to formally leave their schools and then reapply for a place after the lockdown ends. It is likely to take the department far longer than that to process an application to homeschool.
This left at least one prominent Port Elizabeth school wondering whether it had the authority to allow a few months off for pupils whose parents wanted to keep them home until after the peak of Covid-19 had passed. The school's principal wrote to parents: "Angie Motshekga said last night that all children under 15 years of age have to return to school (by law). At this stage, the only information we have received is that should a parent choose to keep their child at home, for whatever reason, then parents need to follow the correct procedure for homeschooling. Please can all parents inform their class teacher if they will not be sending their daughters to school at this time. As soon as we receive directives from the Department of Education as to how we are to support those with comorbidities, we will convey the information to you."