Motshekga, deputy and top official at odds over reopening date for schools
Conflicting messages from the top structure of the basic education department this week left SA confused, and underscored the many hurdles schools need to overcome before they can reopen.
While the government has this month to address issues like supplying sanitiser, masks and running water to schools, important safety protocols like social distancing, dealing with teachers who have comorbidities and providing extra classrooms will add to the challenges.
Some private schools have come up with their own safety plans, including daily electronic screening through questionnaires and alternating school days for different grades.
The department changed its tune a number of times this week, mostly on the proposed date for reopening schools and the supply of face masks.
The number of schools with critical water supply challenges
Briefing parliamentarians on Wednesday, director-general Mathanzima Mweli’s presentation mentioned May 6 as the proposed date for the return of pupils in grades 7 and 12. Just under an hour later, deputy minister Reginah Mhaule told the same briefing that the proposed date was May 18.
On Thursday evening, basic education minister Angie Motshekga announced that June 1 was the proposed date for the return of the two grades.
Mweli also said on Wednesday that face masks would be provided to pupils attending quintile 1-3 schools (for the very poor) and quintile 4, only to be contradicted a day later by Motshekga, who said masks would be provided to all schools, including those in quintile 5, the more affluent schools.
The number of pupils in state schools
Basil Manuel, executive director of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of SA, said it was “a great pity that the parliamentary briefing was broadcast to the nation when everybody was on tenterhooks. The authorities, the director-general, didn’t read the mood of the nation. It caused a lot of mayhem and anxiety.”
While school management teams at public schools were expected to return on May 11 and teachers on May 18, many private schools have already secured hygiene and sanitisation packages, and drawn up procedures to be followed once they are allowed to open.
Before parents arrive at Pridwin Preparatory in Johannesburg to drop off their children in the morning, they may be asked to fill in an “electronic questionnaire” on their cellphone, to confirm that they do not have a cough or a high temperature.
This is a proposal in a draft document drawn up by Pridwin teachers.
The number of state schools vandalised since lockdown began
Principal Patrick Lees said the school was considering allowing pupils from different grades to attend school on different days.
The school proposes that grades 0 and 4 attend on Monday, grades 1 and 5 on Tuesday, grades 2 and 6 on Wednesday, and grades 3 and 7 on Thursday, supplemented by online learning.
Curro, which has 175 schools, will provide face masks to staff. Spokesperson Mari Lategan said it had procured personal protective equipment items.
Alan Thompson, principal of St Andrew’s College in Makhanda (Grahamstown), said it had procured temperature scanners, sanitisers and cloth masks for its 480 pupils.
“We have also established a laundry process to ensure that they are properly sanitised between uses,” he said.
Private schools are looking to bring back pupils in grades 1 and 12.
Lebogang Montjane, executive director of the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa, said the main factor was “a sizeable portion of our parents may be reluctant to let their children go back to school”.
Motshekga said what her department presented at the portfolio committee was a consultation document, “not a decision”.
“A decision about what is going to happen finally is going to come from cabinet. We are having a document through which we are consulting and getting people’s views.”
She said: “We want to intensify our communication so we don’t find ourselves misunderstood, misquoted or misread. We had poorly communicated in the past few days.”
She added 3,500 schools had “critical water supply challenges”.
Chris Klopper, CEO of the Suid-Afrikaanse Onderwysers Unie (South African Teachers’ Union), had doubts about whether the provincial departments could supply water to more than 3,000 schools that needed it. “They have not been able to deliver on that particular issue for the past 25 years. How are they going to deliver on that in the next month?”
Klopper said replacing teachers older than 60 and those with comorbidities was also going to be a problem.
“If you take teachers teaching maths, science and accounting to grade 11 and 12 learners, for example, where are you going to find suitable replacements?”
But he said schools would have masks, sanitisation products and temperature scanners because orders had been placed by provincial departments on April 20.