Schools might reopen in June except those in 'hot spots'

Education officials say virus hot spots still too risky for kids

17 May 2020 - 00:03 By PREGA GOVENDER
More than 5,000 schools could not reopen next month.
More than 5,000 schools could not reopen next month.
Image: Gallo Images/ IStock

More than 5,000 schools in Covid-19 hot spots across SA, including 929 private schools, will stay shut next month if the cabinet approves a new proposal by the basic education department.

The Sunday Times can reveal exclusively that the department wants schools in Buffalo City, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni, eThekwini, Mangaung and Nelson Mandela Bay to be regarded as being on lockdown level 5 when others around the country begin reopening on June 1.

Keeping these schools shut would affect 3.7-million pupils and 134,779 teachers.

The proposal - discussed on Wednesday with the National Alliance of Independent Schools Associations (Naisa), which represents nine private schools' associations - is expected to be unveiled when basic education minister Angie Motshekga briefs the media tomorrow about how ready the provinces are to reopen schools.

Circulars the Sunday Times has seen show that in some provinces schools have been instructed to buy personal protection equipment with funds originally meant for learning materials, while parents have been roped in to help with cleaning.

The document outlining the department's proposals, which the Sunday Times has seen, suggests that all 157,123 matric pupils in hot-spot areas "be accommodated in grade 12 special camps".

Schools in areas where Covid-19 infections are lower will be listed under lockdown level 3, and grades 7 and 12 will resume on June 1, with grades R to 7 and grade 11 expected to return on a staggered basis. Pupils in the remaining grades will return once lockdown level 2 begins.

The proposal says that under level 3, the school timetable could be rearranged to "accommodate different grades attending school on alternate days as well as platooning/shift arrangements to comply with social distancing".

Unions representing teachers, including the South African Democratic Teachers Union, do not want their members to return to work unless schools are disinfected and teachers are provided with soap, sanitisers and masks. They also want social distancing to be observed.

The unions will meet Motshekga tomorrow for a progress report on the readiness of the provinces.

Naisa chair Mandla Mthembu confirmed that the alliance met on Wednesday with the department's director-general, Mathanzima Mweli, but expressed surprise that the department's proposal had been leaked.

Mthembu said when Naisa's nine member organisations met on Friday, concern was expressed about the 929 schools that may not reopen on June 1.

"Our concern is that there's a blanket approach to say all schools in those municipalities must not open. If schools are located in the red zone but in wards that may be viewed as level 4 or level 3, they should be allowed to open."

He said that during the meeting with Mweli, they were told no private school should open before June 1.

Lebogang Montjane, executive director of the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa, which has 802 member schools in SA and was represented by one of his officials at the meeting on Wednesday, said it had written to Motshekga the next day requesting that private schools in "high transmission areas" be allowed to operate from June 1 if they comply with Covid-19 requirements.

The department's proposal must be approved by the National Coronavirus Command Council before going to the cabinet for final approval.

Elijah Mhlanga, spokesperson for the department of basic education, said the leaked document was being used for "discussion purposes".

"I know for a fact [it] has since been overtaken by events," he said.

The national president of the South African Principals' Association, David de Korte, said the logistics of teaching more than 157,000 matrics in camps would be "quite a challenge".

"We would like to get back to school as soon as possible. We believe that face-to-face contact with pupils is the best way of imparting education."

Basil Manuel, the executive director of the National Professional Teachers Organisation of SA, said: "We accept that this may be a reality that more than 5,000 schools may remain closed because opening them would simply just not make sense. However, I would seriously caution against holding matric camps. Where would you put the children?"

The Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools has asked Motshekga to arrange a meeting with medical experts and scientists to try to allay parents' fears.

The group's CEO, Paul Colditz, said one-third of 3,700 parents responding to a recent snap survey believed schools should not reopen at all this year.

Meanwhile, some provinces appear to be struggling with cleaning programmes for schools. According to a circular, Stepinah Semaswe, the superintendent-general of the North West education department, has asked district officials and principals to "mobilise" parents to clean schools without indicating whether they would be paid.

Limpopo instructed schools to use 45% of their operating budgets to hire cleaners and buy gloves, aprons and cleaning material. Those budgets are used for essentials, such as paper to print work sheets.

KwaZulu-Natal's education department asked schools to hire cleaners to clean up to 25 classrooms a day at R10 per classroom.


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