Motshekga’s plan for partial reopening of schools on hold after talks with unions, parent bodies

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Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga's plan to reopen schools has ground to a halt.
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga's plan to reopen schools has ground to a halt.
Image: Cebisile Mbonani

Basic education minister Angie Motshekga's plan for grades 7 and 12 to return to school tomorrow was stopped in its tracks yesterday, and a return to class is unlikely.

The minister's apparent climbdown came after a week in which she faced opposition from teacher unions and school governing bodies, insisting the schools were not yet ready for a partial opening as SA moves to level 3 of the Covid-19 national lockdown.

The new twist followed a marathon meeting between Motshekga, MECs, teacher unions and governing body associations last night. The minister is expected to make an announcement today after consulting further, says South African Democratic Teachers' Union spokesperson Nomusa Cembi.

Several sources said Motshekga acknowledged to the five unions and three major governing body associations that met with her that "the system is not completely ready".

It was also revealed that some provinces were "really far behind" in terms of readiness to reopen schools.

An insider said the indefinite postponement was to give teachers and governing bodies another week to prepare, and buy time to deliver water to schools without running water, where tanks had not been delivered.

"There are schools that need mobile classes. They will be delivered this week because construction workers couldn't work under level 4," said the insider.

The meeting took place amid calls from the unions and the governing body associations for schools to stay shut until they had the correct equipment to protect staff and pupils from possible Covid-19 infection.

It also came as the One South Africa Movement, headed by former DA leader Mmusi Maimane, and the South African Human Rights Commission (HRC) said yesterday they were going to court to stop the re opening.

Grade 7 and 12 pupils were due to return to school tomorrow, followed by other grades at later dates.

A survey conducted among 6,600 principals has revealed that there is a dire shortage of face masks for teachers and pupils in eight of the country's provinces.

The study, conducted on Friday among members of the five teacher unions, also indicated there are "serious lags nationally" in the delivery of water tanks to schools.

The results show that although progress has been made in the delivery of Covid-19 essentials, "it was not sufficient to guarantee the safety of both teachers and learners".

This is the report that the five teacher unions presented to Motshekga yesterday in their last-ditch attempt to change her mind.

On Friday, a day before they were set to meet Motshekga, the unions and SA's three major governing body associations threw down the gauntlet when they issued a joint statement unanimously agreeing that the sector was not ready to reopen schools.

"We cannot support a piecemeal approach to the reopening of schools or the leaving behind of the most disadvantaged schools in our country," the statement read.

The unions called on all schools, including those that are ready, not to reopen until all the non-negotiables were delivered.

The unions' survey found that only 40% of respondents indicated there was a system in place to replace soap, 45% said toilets had soap and water, and 39% indicated that classrooms have been disinfected.

Yesterday, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union (Nehawu) joined the fray after rejecting the department's decision to partially reopen schools.

National Education Collaboration Trust CEO Godwin Khosa, who heads the consortium tasked with monitoring the delivery of Covid-19 essentials to schools, confirmed that he presented a report to the Council of Education Ministers. He declined to comment on the "observations and recommendations" made in the report, saying it is "sensitive and of national importance".

A glaring mistake in the Government Gazette that published the regulations on school reopening, which the unions described as "a flawed document", is the failure to mention grades 1 and 2 or the date for their return to class.

More than 850,000 grade R pupils attending public schools will have to wait until July 6 to return to class, but their counterparts at private schools will be allowed to return to school from tomorrow.

This is because of a special dispensation that was granted to the independent school sector by the department of basic education.

Basic education director-general Mathanzima Mweli informed the National Alliance of Independent Schools Associations (Naisa) on Friday that only independent schools with grade R classes will be allowed to reopen those classes tomorrow.

"The other [early childhood development, or ECD] centres are the responsibility of social development and not basic education, and social development will determine when ECD centres registered with them will open."

Naisa's chair, Mandla Mthembu, said he is expecting grade R pupils at some schools to return tomorrow.

"It was a special dispensation granted by the minister because independent schools have the ability . to have a negligible number of learners. A number of them have the resources to meet the Covid-19 regulations."

Basil Manuel, executive director of the National Professional Teachers' Organisation of SA (Naptosa), said it had asked Motshekga "for more time to ensure that the system is properly ready".

"We are not at the place where we are comfortable that everything has been done and that every school is ready to open.

We are not at the place where we are comfortable that everything has been done and that every school is ready to open
Naptosa executive director Basil Manuel

"We are not saying teachers must not go back. We said 'Let's not open on Monday in the fashion that she wants'."

He said that curriculum planning has to be done because teachers don't know what has changed in the curriculum.

He said they also expressed their concerns over the "flawed" Government Gazette, saying "all it has done is confuse more than it solves problems".

"We are gravely unhappy. It's a poorly written document."

He said the idea of more grades being phased in at one time was mentioned for the first time in the document. Previously, the suggestion was that two grades at a time will return.

According to the document, grades R, 3, 6, 10 and 11 will return on July 6 and grades 4, 5, 8 and 9 on August 3.

Manuel said grade 9s will only return on August 3, yet they need to make subject choices for the following phase. "Would it not be better for this grade to return in July? Why are they coming back so late?"

David de Korte, president of the South African Principals' Association, representing 3,000 principals, said headmasters are advised not to "feel pressurised" by their provincial education departments if they are not ready to reopen.

"If you are unhappy about anything, make the call [not to open]. You can always defend it on the grounds of keeping your learners safe and then work towards getting everything ready."

Paul Colditz, CEO of the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools, said a third of the 514 schools that participated in a recent survey on school readiness said they are not ready.

Several schools have already had to close down because of infections as the first of the school management teams started to return from this week - 37 staff members at 32 schools in the Western Cape have tested positive for the virus. In Gauteng, two teachers tested positive - one at an independent school and the other at a public school in Ekurhuleni.

They are in quarantine, and a Johannesburg principal is being treated in hospital after contracting the virus.

Gauteng education MEC Panyaza Lesufi confirmed that a pupil at a school in Bronkhorstspruit, 50km east of Pretoria, had tested positive for the virus.

Both the One South Africa Movement and the HRC said yesterday that they are going to court to stop schools from opening on Monday.

Maimane said papers, which will be filed electronically by the movement, cite the president, government and the ministers of co-operative governance & traditional affairs and basic education as respondents.

The organisation argues that the government has the good intention of balancing economic and health considerations, but the reopening of schools is a gamble given the state of some schools and the track record of the department.

"We believe that schools are not ready and we are asking that the court provide a supervisory role to make sure that all schools in this country are safe for learners to get back into," it argues.

HRC commissioner Andre Gaum said they dispatched a letter to Motshekga on Thursday, highlighting safety concerns.

"Our chairperson wrote to the minister to ask her to consider postponing the reopening of schools in view of our own monitoring and consultations with stakeholders, which points to a situation where many schools are not ready in terms of the basic requirements," he said.

"We have not received a response to that letter yet and we are considering our options. One of those options is an urgent court application."

Gaum said that because schools that do not comply with the minimum health, safety and social distancing measures will not be allowed to open, poor children are in danger of being left behind.

"That is of particular concern because most these schools [that would be barred from reopening] will be in areas where socioeconomic backlogs and general disadvantage would, in effect, prevent those children from going to school, while other children will be allowed to return," said Gaum.

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