Blanket opening of schools 'would have been risky': Angie Motshekga

01 June 2020 - 15:08 By ANDISIWE MAKINANA
Basic education minister Angie Motshekga at a media briefing on Monday morning.
Basic education minister Angie Motshekga at a media briefing on Monday morning.
Image: GCIS

Not all schools were ready to receive pupils on Monday, which meant a blanket opening was "risky".

This was according to basic education minister Angie Motshekga on Monday in explaining the last-minute, week-long postponement of the return of grade 7 and matric pupils to school.

She said some schools were still waiting for the delivery of water tanks, while others had not yet trained support staff on new procedures for Covid-19.

Therefore, it would be risky to have a blanket opening of schools. It took us long on Saturday to arrive at that,” said Motshekga, as she confirmed that schools will reopen to these learners only on June 8.

On Saturday the department held a meeting with the council of education ministers (CEM) and union bodies.

The minister - who has come under attack from opposition parties, NGOs and teacher unions - outlined the reasons behind the delay in the reopening of schools at a press conference on Monday morning.

She also apologised for the inconvenience caused by her office's dilly-dallying on the announcement. She was scheduled to host a briefing on school reopening on Sunday, but this was postponed at the 11th hour.

At the outset, I must acknowledge the furore the postponement of yesterday’s media conference caused - and for that I sincerely apologise,” she said.

Motshekga attributed the delay to last-minute changes taken at the council late on Saturday, where it was decided that schools should not receive learners on Monday. Instead, they should use this week to "mop up".

She explained that because the decision had major implications for the sector and there were learners who were already on their way to schools, especially to those schools in other provinces, she prioritised communication with principals who had to communicate the decision to parents.

“I didn't want principals to first hear from the media that they can't receive learners before we speak to them directly. I had to engage with association of school principals, leadership of schools both private and independent because they were also using the date,” she said.

“I just could not jump other steps especially with people who were affected. Principals had to know what to communicate to parents.

Motshekga revealed that she had to also fend off the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), which was threatening to interdict Monday's reopening of schools. She said she also had to allay the fears of organisations representing learners with special needs.

At Saturday's meeting, the council received three reports – one on the state of readiness from a research consortium co-ordinated by the National Education Collaboration Trust, the second on the state of delivery of water tanks and water supply by Rand Water, and the third a technical report from the heads of education departments committee on the state of readiness for the phased-in reopening of schools.

“Based on these reports, it became clear that the sector was at different levels of readiness. We are allowed to reopen schools only if we meet requirements to the full. Those reports confirmed that in some instances we were 80% [ready]; in other provinces we were 96%. We were not all at the same level,” said Motshekga.

“In the main, it was this reason that the CEM determined the sector requires more time to mop up the state of readiness for schools reopening.”

Critical to the reopening of school is absolute compliance with all health and safety requirements pronounced by the health department.

During her personal visits to schools, principals told Motshekga that teachers were not ready to teach as they were still dealing with curriculum issues. In some cases, the teachers were themselves anxious and still needed to settle down. In some cases there had been a schedule on the arrival of teachers at schools but the support staff had not been back and still needed to be inducted.

“There were schools which were very ready, and there were schools that were not ready,” she said.

There were other key factors around coronavirus safety which had not been satisfied, including water.

Rand Water had indicated on Sunday that there were schools in which it had not delivered tanks and that tankers were only arriving on Monday, said the minister.

She said the council resolved that teachers whose schools have already received the personal protective equipment (PPE) would be expected to report to work on June 1. Those teachers would have to prioritise the preparation of their work to deal with the new normal brought about by the coronavirus, which meant new tasks for teachers.

Provinces have also agreed to finalise all outstanding delivery of PPE to schools and outstanding provision of water and sanitation.

This week would be utilised to ensure that all prerequisites not yet fulfilled will be delivered, said the minister. A meeting to monitor and evaluate all outstanding compliance imperatives will be held on Thursday, she added.

In addition, the following was expected:

  • teachers should induct, orientate and counsel learners who have already arrived at the schools to deal with the new Covid-19 environment, including those learners who arrived at boarding schools over the weekend;

  • provinces should finalise the training of screeners, cleaners and volunteers for the national school nutrition programme; and

  • processes related to independent schools, small schools and schools for learners with special education needs should be managed with the representatives of these sectors.

The minister said any further delays posed a serious threat to the system. In order to recoup the teaching and learning time lost, the schooling system would need to be re-engineered, resulting in an adjustment of timetables and a review of the curriculum in terms of the National Education Policy Act, she said.