South Africa: MEC Debbie Schäfer On Disruption of Schools

press release

In the past week we have seen the disruption of schooling by community members and civic organisations. It is clear that there is a lot of mobilisation among various organisations around the fact that schools are open, and in anticipation of more learners returning to school on 6 July. It is particularly interesting that this appears to be happening in the Western Cape more than anywhere else, whilst Gauteng has a higher number of active cases now than we do.

These organisations claim to have the safety of teachers and learners at heart. However, it is their own actions that are putting our learners' and teachers' lives at risk. Video evidence shows people entering schools, and organisations taking learners to the streets, not wearing their masks correctly, nor adhering to physical distancing.

In addition, they are denying learners of one of the most fundamental rights in our Constitution - the right to Education.

While I completely understand the anxiety and concern of teachers and parents, I also have to ensure that our system functions. We are, like our colleagues in health, providing a public service.

The decision has been taken at a national level that schools are open. This is supported by all provinces. The Minister has been quite clear that the decision was not taken lightly, and was done based on medical evidence and advice, which all supported the phased return to school, subject to the correct health protocols being in place.

Millions of litres of sanitizers and cleaning products have been and are being delivered to schools, as well as millions of masks and thousands of thermometers. Over R450 million has been spent on this. Guidelines on how to manage Covid-19 in schools, how to keep schools clean, how to orientate learners and educators and how to manage learner and teacher safety, to name a few, have been provided to schools.

Every day, nearly 1 500 schools are going about the daily essential task of educating learners without disruption. Learners, educators and staff, feel as safe as they can in this very unusual period. In fact, I have been informed that some parents feel their children are safer in school than out, because they are now adhering to these safety measures in schools - whereas out in the community, they are not.

The unfortunate fact is that infections in schools will mirror infections in communities. However, at this stage, we do not see evidence of a greater rate of infection at schools than anywhere else. Where schools have reported cases, the majority have only reported 1. So there is not evidence of mass spreading at schools. At present in the Western Cape, less than 0.1% of learners in the grades meant to be back in class (Grade 7, 12 and School of Skills year 4) have tested positive. Staff members at schools who have tested positive account for 1.5% of school staff.

The vast majority of under 20s who have tested positive, as well as a number of teachers, did so during lockdown, when schools were closed. So why is it that people are targeting schools?

In addition, we must consider the profoundly negative impact that keeping schools closed has on our learners and their families. Firstly, our most vulnerable learners lose access to nutritional support on the School Nutrition Programme. With so many parents losing their jobs, this is a vital lifeline to learners reliant on the programme. Secondly, the Brookings Institution recently estimated that the loss of future income for United States school students from just four months of school closure would be $2.5 trillion. This is not a case of 'economy vs. lives' - we must recognise that losing out on their education has a direct impact on their future health, food security, safety and earning capacity.

Furthermore, parents who are not receiving government-guaranteed salaries need to be able to go to work and cannot leave their children at home alone when they should be able to go to school. This is evidenced by the desperate call for ECD centres to re-open. It does not make sense to close schools but allow the re-opening of the economy.

It is understandable for parents and teachers to be anxious about this - as we are about all of our daily interactions at work, in shops, when visiting healthcare providers and the like. But the fact is that this virus is going to be with us for a while - we can't shut down schooling for a year or more. So we need to be pragmatic and weigh up the risks, implementing every possible measure to keep our learners and staff safe.

The national minister did publish directions last week which make provision for the Head of Department to exempt learners from attending school on application by their parents, and on the conditions he determines. We are finalising that process this week, and will communicate as soon as it is in place. But one of the conditions will be that anyone who keeps their child home will have to take responsibility for their learning, working with the school.

We need strong school leaders, committed teachers and responsive officials to make this work. We need communities to support our schools and learners, particularly our matriculants who are anxious about the months to come. We need to support our schools when they need us.

We need to ensure that schools that are not complying with safety regulations do comply, and we need to ensure that we address teachers, principals and staff who are not supporting the task that we have all been given. Resorting to social media for attention-seeking will not achieve anything other than to further heighten the anxiety of parents and teachers, and the spreading of fake news and incorrect facts about Covid-19 is unlawful.

If there is a time for teamwork, it is now. Divisive, disruptive and irresponsible behaviour cannot and will not be tolerated.

I want to thank all the schools that have quietly and professionally supported, even when anxious, the decision to continue teaching and learning, and have taken the steps asked of them to ensure safety at our schools. They have certainly shown the teamwork that is crucial to navigate through this pandemic, which is affecting us all.

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