While it is uncertain when teachers in the Free State will receive vaccinations during this third wave, the number of COVID-19 infections and deaths in the province's schools continues to increase.
So far, according to figures from the Department of Basic Education the Free State has officially reported the deaths of six learners, 75 teachers, and three non-teaching staff between the period of March 2020 to date. Most of these cases were in Motheo District, which includes Bloemfontein, followed by Lejweleputswa District, which includes towns such as Welkom.
COVID-19 and loss
And as teachers wait on their vaccines, it is people such as Quincy Tsoenyane who are hit hard by the escalating numbers in schools. Tsoenyane is among parents who lost a child due to COVID-19 related complications. His daughter, Nomthandazo Ngcoyi (18), was a learner at Lephola Secondary school in Welkom. She was one of 11 other learners at the school who tested positive for COVID-19 in May.
"Nomthandazo was the most humble child I have ever come across, Tsoenyane tells Spotlight during an interview. "She gave us hope as a family. I, as her father looked up to her and I believed in her capabilities and that one day we will also be able to have an educated child," he says.
"I enjoyed every moment of raising her. She had a great personality and was very shy at times. Nomthandazo did not have many friends. She was always at home doing her school work or bonding with her two younger siblings."
Tsoenyane says his daughter wanted to become a chartered accountant.
"She had been working very hard to get the best marks which will enable her to study a Degree in Accounting. She gave us hope for a better and brighter livelihood as a family."
The father of three, now two, says it pains him to know that his daughter got sick a school.
"She was goal-orientated and this deadly virus has cost us her life. We are very hurt as a family. Her mother is not coping. Her siblings are also not coping. It has only been a week since we lost her but I still cannot believe that my beautiful baby girl is no more."
Tsoenyane says although Nomthandazo tested positive, she showed no symptoms.
"It was a bright and beautiful day. She was preparing food in the kitchen while I was watching television. She just called me to come and help her because she said her heart was suddenly beating very fast and that made her feel uncomfortable.
"Immediately, something in me told me to rush her to the nearest medical facility. I called my sister to come but unfortunately, when we arrived, the doctor (a local GP) told us that my daughter was no more.
"I am shocked because all of this happened within a period of 45 minutes. She was not sick, and she showed no symptoms, but she died instantly," says Toenyane, sobbing.
According to the DBE, Nomthandazo had a cough at school and was tested for COVID-19 along with other kids. On 19 May, she tested positive and was sent home to isolate. Six days later, she died at home.
A rare case
According to Dr Cloete van Vuuren, an Infectious Disease Specialist in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Free State, Nomthandazo's death is a rare case.
Van Vuuren says it is uncommon for young people to die from the COVID-19 virus.
"From an infectious disease point of view, it is exceptionally rare for a young person to die of COVID-19," Van Vuuren says. He says since he was not part of the case, it is very difficult to explain the situation. "In this case, it might be that the positive COVID-19 test results were incidental and that she did however die of an underlying disease which was not known to the family."
The DBE figures show that since March 2020, the Free State has recorded a total of 2 101 positive cases among teachers in schools, 1 377 among learners, and 461 among non-teaching staff.
Several schools have had to shut down due to COVID-19 confirmed cases in the Free State. Schools such as Eunice High School for Girls, St Andrews School, Reutlwahetse High School, Lephola Secondary School, and Tebang Primary School are among the schools that have had to close their doors due to the surge of infections in schools.
The waiting game
As numbers climb in Free State schools, teaching federations and unions are calling for a speedy vaccination of teachers in schools.
Jaco Deacon, Deputy CEO of the Federation of Schools Governing Bodies (FEDSAS) tells Spotlight teachers are frontline workers and the best option is for them to be vaccinated as soon as possible.
"The urgent vaccinating of teachers is highly important because we need to have children back in schools."
Children from Grades R to 7 will return to in-person learning from 26 July.
In a media statement, the National Professional Teachers Organisation of South Africa (Naptosa) said that they are pleased to know that 500 000 doses of the J&J vaccine have been secured for the education sector.
However, the union says they are in limbo since the doses must still be verified by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the US Medicines regulator, and will expire on 28 July.
Can @healthza confirm this is indeed happening? Where will these doses come from? Would they otherwise have been used for people over 60? Is age no longer the primary criteria? Will there be a statement explaining all this? @DrZweliMkhize @PresidencyZA @CyrilRamaphosa https://t.co/Qsp1JLqEqj
- Spotlight (@SpotlightNSP) June 5, 2021
Read more on these developments here.
Be vigilant and safe
Meanwhile, Department of Basic Education spokesperson Howard Ndaba is calling on all learners, teachers, and non-teaching staff in Free State schools to be vigilant and religiously observe the non-pharmaceutical COVID-19 protocols which include sanitising hands, wearing a face mask, and keeping an adequate social distance at all times.
"The department is also calling on all parents and members of the community to avoid visiting schools unless it is really necessary, he said.
Dr Kerrin Begg, Public Health Specialist in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Cape Town reminded teachers that although it is understandable for them to be anxious about the vaccination, each and every person has the responsibility to educate themselves.
"Teachers need to be teaching themselves about the virus just like they do in their everyday line of work of teaching children.
"At the Colleges of Medicine of South Africa, we have produced school guidelines on measures to take to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 in the school environment. First, teachers need to understand the transmission. The transmission does not take place during school, but it happens after hours like at school sporting events, during break time, and at social gatherings. Children do not sanitise anymore, they don't keep to the principle of social distancing anymore so those are the things that are causing transmission," Begg explains.
"We remind parents and teachers to remember that protecting themselves is not to be practiced during school hours only, but there are three major focal points of transmission which are before, during, and after school hours.
"Teachers need to understand that the environment of the classroom is very important. Fresh air is better than artificial air, outside is better than inside. Schools also need to continue to promote personal and physical distancing, and hygiene measures daily," Begg says.