Teachers plead for 'new timetable' as Covid-19 infections spike

Teacher unions insist Angie halt all classes until late next month, pleading Covid risk

19 July 2020 - 00:05 By PREGA GOVENDER
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Learners' support agent Mthobisi Nxumalo screens pupils at Sibusisiwe Comprehensive School in Umbumbulu.
Learners' support agent Mthobisi Nxumalo screens pupils at Sibusisiwe Comprehensive School in Umbumbulu.
Image: Sandile Ndlovu

Schools must be closed immediately, including matric classes, and only reopen at the end of next month once Covid-19 infections have peaked, say SA's five teacher unions.

A resolution by the unions to this effect was included in a document basic education minister Angie Motshekga took to yesterday's meeting with the education MECs of the nine provinces.

The unions say matrics should return on August 17 and that "different modes [of teaching] to assist them while they are at home" should be prioritised. Other grades should return at the end of August, subject to a review based on the development of the virus.

Motshekga met the unions on Friday after meeting governing body associations earlier in the week.

She will be discussing issues raised by the different stakeholders with the cabinet in the next few days.

The unions' call has reignited confusion among parents across the country as they wait for a decision by the government on whether or not their children will return to school.

There have already been two eleventh- hour about-turns by the department. On the eve of a scheduled return to school of grades 7 and 12 pupils on June 1, the department announced these two grades would resume classes only on June 8. Further confusion arose days before five new grades were due to resume on July 6, when the department announced that only grades R, 6 and 11 would be returning.

Grades 3 and 10 are due to return tomorrow, but KwaZulu-Natal schools were told on Friday not to phase in any new grades until they are given the green light by the provincial education department.

Earlier this week, President Cyril Ramaphosa said the World Health Organisation's warning against reopening schools while local transmissions are on the rise had persuaded the government to "sit back, discuss and find solutions".

All five of SA's teacher unions are unanimous in their support for the immediate closure of schools, but school governing body associations are divided, in what amounts to a stand-off between rich and poor.

An alliance of private schools and the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (Fedsas), representing mostly former Model C schools, wants pupils to stay in class. Their stance has been supported by the South African Human Rights Commission and the Anglican church.

But the National Association of School Governing Bodies (NASGB), the voice of more than 9,000 governing bodies of no-fee schools, said all grades except grades 7 and 12 should be cancelled.

Twenty-two teachers have died of Covid-19 complications in the Western Cape, 12 in KwaZulu-Natal and eight in the Eastern Cape. The other provinces did not respond to inquiries by the Sunday Times.

Motshekga said this week just over 16,000 teachers have underlying health conditions, placing them at higher risk should they contract Covid-19.

In its submission to Motshekga, the unions said that the department should provide teachers with "the necessary tools to work from home and prepare work for the reopening of schools and return of learners".

Other resolutions by the unions include:

• Stakeholders and the department must engage the department of higher education to consider late registration for first-year university students next year;

• Innovative ways to feed pupils relying on the school feeding scheme must be agreed upon as a matter of urgency;

• The provision of work for pupils at home must be agreed upon by exploring a number of drop-off points which also become pick-up points for parents or guardians; and

• A task team must be established to work on all the challenges confronting the education system.

Basic education spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga confirmed that a meeting of the Council of Education Ministers took place yesterday. He said an announcement on the ministers' engagement will be announced "in due course".

"We wish to reiterate that it is the cabinet that will make the decision on whether schools close or remain open," he said.

It's easy for unions like Sadtu and others to say schools can close for the next two to three months because they know they will still get their salaries

Meanwhile, a study by professor Martin Gustafsson from Stellenbosch University and Carol Nuga Deliwe from basic education has found that without catch-up lessons, the skills of those completing matric "would be lower than in the no-pandemic scenario up to 2031".

The researchers said that, according to World Bank analysts, the number of out-of-school children in SA aged 4 to 17 is expected to rise by 31,000.

National Alliance of Independent Schools Associations chair Mandla Mthembu said it does not want schools closed as "health and safety protocols have generally been quite strict".

"It's easy for unions like Sadtu and others to say schools can close for the next two to three months because they know they will still get their salaries. When our schools close, our teachers don't earn a cent," he said.

Fedsas CEO Paul Colditz said: "There may be tens of thousands of teachers who want the schools closed but there are millions of parents who want to send their children back."

NASGB general secretary Matakanye Matakanye said that they wanted only grades 7 and 12 to remain in class because the system is "not ready to absorb the other grades".

He said that if schools are closed, the poorest of the poor pupils from rural areas and townships will be deprived of writing matric exams.

"The truth of the matter is that even if schools are closed, the wealthy schools will still provide online learning to pupils while pupils at poor schools will suffer."

Professor Lindelani Mnguni from Unisa's school of teacher education said that suspension of the academic calendar is likely to reduce the spread of the pandemic.

"The closing of schools could significantly reduce the spread of the pandemic, and this could save thousands of lives."

Mnguni said that closing schools without suspending the entire academic calendar would be a fruitless exercise.

"The majority of learners do not have the infrastructure or skills for online learning. For most learners, family dynamics do not allow them to study adequately. We must not forget about child-headed homes, learners with single parents and learners who live in informal settlements."

Professor Chika Sehoole, the dean of education at the University of Pretoria, said that the implications of losing the academic year are unfathomable, in terms of resources, time and preparation of pupils for the next grade.

He said that both teachers and matric pupils started with "a catch-up game" when classes resumed on June 8 after schools closed in March.

"Any closure of schools now would spell the end of the academic year as no-one knows when the pandemic will end. Even if we get over the peak around September, there would be no way both teachers and pupils will recover lost time."

Professor Labby Ramrathan from the University of KwaZulu-Natal said that if schools close, older pupils "may become disinterested in schooling and drop out".

"We may have a whole cohort of school learners losing an entire year of their lives."

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