South Africa: COVID-19 - Parents Protest Against Schools Opening

Some schools in the Western Cape start as the rest of the country expects to return next week

Protesters, organised by the Bishop Lavis Action Community (BLAC), gathered from 7am outside the school's front gates, calling for it to remain closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

School for grades 7 and 12 were meant to start today, but the department backtracked at the eleventh hour after confusing and conflicting messages. On 31 May, the national department said that all learners should return to school on 8 June. Regardless, the Western Cape education department released a statement that schools in the Western Cape would still be opening on 1 June.

On Monday, picketers held up placards which read: "Not sending my son to his grave", "Keep our teachers safe, our children need them", and "Lose a year, not a life".

Beverley Fortuin, who has a son is in matric at John Ramsey High School in Bishop Lavis, said she had decided to keep her son home for now. "At the moment there isn't any guarantee that the schools are safe. I would like my son to go back to school to complete his curriculum but not at the current status of the virus," she said.

She raised concern over lack of infrastructure at schools needed to properly sanitise everyone. Lindy Michaels has two children in grades 1 and 7 at Bergville Primary. Michaels is concerned about the safety of her children and has also decided not to send them to school. "With the [infection] numbers rising and teachers getting ill, why are the schools opening today?" she asked.

"I'm concerned about my children's education but their health comes first. I'll send my children back to school once the Covid numbers come down," she said.

Victor Alternsteadt, general secretary of the BLAC, said that considering that Cape Town is one of the country's hotspots for Covid-19, "the schools will become the new vectors where this infection will spread and the disease will come into our houses".

"Our schools are not ready. Covid-19 has exposed the inequalities within the education system. Rich schools can opt for homeschooling or online learning. We are sitting with more than 40 children in a classroom. How do you implement social distancing?" he asked.

Alternsteadt also questioned how educators would prevent learners from playing together. "Students and teachers getting ill would be incredibly traumatic," he said.

A memorandum penned by the group, addressed to Provincial Minister of Education Debbie Schäfer, calls for the school year to be restarted or for the curriculum to be adjusted for grades 1 to grade 11 learners. They also want a "special curriculum" for matriculants in order for them to complete the year.

Other demands included: fixing school infrastructure; free data and headsets for learners who don't have access to them; and the use of radio and TV for educational purposes. The memo was given to the school's head who promised to forward it to the department.

A joint statement by civil society groups SECTION27, Equal Education Law Centre and Equal Education on Monday read: "The Department of Basic Education has failed to fulfil its promises to enable schools to re-open safely."

The statement said that the national department had failed to carry out the planned preparations of schools including sufficient protective gear, sanitisation, water tanks and mobile classrooms where they are needed to prevent overcrowding.

"The failure of the [department] and most provincial education departments to comply with their undertakings and meet their own deadlines in terms of preparing schools for re-opening, unfortunately mirrors their ongoing failures to provide textbooks, essential school infrastructure like toilets, and scholar transport."

Bronagh Hammond of the Western Cape education department said that parents were allowed to keep their children home and could apply for home schooling. She added that "it is not acceptable to prevent or deny other learners that want to go to school, of their basic rights".

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