GARDEN ROUTE NEWS - "You are denying learners one of the most fundamental rights in our Constitution, the right to education." So said the Western Cape Minister of Education, Debbie Schäfer, earlier this week in a press release that addressed the movement by parents and organisations to close schools.
"In the past week we have seen the disruption of schooling by community members and civic organisations," she said.
"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."
Schäfer said the actions of the very organisations that claim to have the safety of teachers and learners at heart, are putting learners' and teachers' lives at risk. In video evidence provided to them, people can be seen entering schools, and organisations taking out learners in public who are not wearing their masks correctly, nor adhering to physical distancing.
"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."
She stressed that the decision that schools should open, was taken at a national level and 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 sanitisers 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 that have been provided to schools on how to manage Covid-19 in schools include how to keep schools clean, how to orientate learners and educators and how to manage learner and teacher safety.
She said 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."
It is an unfortunate fact that infections in schools will mirror infections in communities. "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 one. 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."
In addition, said Schäfer, they must consider the profoundly negative impact that keeping schools closed will have on 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 while the re-opening of the economy is allowed.
"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 published directions last week that 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."
She said strong school leaders are needed, committed teachers and responsive officials to make this work. Communities need to support their schools and learners, particularly the matriculants who are anxious about the months to come. "We need to support our schools when they need us."
At schools that are not complying with safety regulations, communities need to ensure that they address teachers, principals and staff who are not supporting the task that everyone has 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," she said.
"If there is a time for teamwork, it is now. Divisive, disruptive and irresponsible behaviour cannot and will not be tolerated."
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