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Why open schools at the peak of corona virus pandemic?

By Thobile Hans

02 July 2020 Learners at Carl Malcomess High observing social distancing outside the school premises before going into the classrooms. PIC: Andile Khobo

Despite the South African ministry of basic education acknowledging a loss of 60% of the academic time, and Gauteng province preparing for the worst by digging over a million graves, 13 million pupils have returned to school this week.  

While South Africa’s learners are forced to return to school mid-winter and while the country’s health system is battling with the surge in confirmed corona virus cases, Kenya, a country of over 53 million, has opted to keep its own children home until 2021. 

The east African country’s Education Cabinet Secretary, George Magoha, confirmed their 2020’s school calendar wasted due to the corona virus pandemic that saw all learning institutions throughout the country closing down in mid-March. 

Magoha said the primary and secondary schools will resume next year January on a case by case study. At the time, Kenya had recorded 8,250 confirmed cases for corona virus, recovered 2,504 and deaths 167. 

The announcement in Kenya to discontinue classes came two days after South Africa’s Grade R, Grade 6 and Grade 11 resumed classes – at the time corona virus infections had surged to 205, 72. This was exactly a month after the Grade 12 and 7 learners were given a green-light to return to school amid outcry about lack of readiness in many township and village schools. 

By May13, all African countries had recorded at least a case of corona virus, but the South African president Cyril Ramaphosa was too cautious to impose a 21-day-lockdown to flatten the curve and get the health sector prepared on March 27. The government forced schools to an early recess on March 18 – a week earlier to the lockdown. Strangely, the department of basic education reopened on June 8 – a month before the anticipated peak of corona virus in the country. South Arica has not fully lifted the lockdown but the president has been dishing out gradual easing of lockdown restrictions according to the National Corona virus Command Council stipulations. 

The projections made in March indicated that the number of available hospital and ICU beds will likely be exhausted by July. Also, the projections said that KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and Western Cape were expected to peak earlier than other six provinces. This projection was not far off the mark, except that Eastern Cape had 40,401 reported infections ahead of KwaZulu-Natal that had 16,743 cases by July 7. The Western Cape and Gauteng were leading the top four, with 72,156 and respectively 71,488. 

By the time of posting this article Gauteng had the most infections and followed by the Western Cape. Both province’s premiers Alan Winde and David Makhura had confirmed testing positive for corona virus. The third premier to be infected was the 72-year-old Job Mokgoro of the North West province. 

02 July 2020 Learners at Carl Malcomess High taking temparatures before going into the classrooms. PIC: Andile Khobo

A majority of learners return to school against pushback from stakeholders

Minister of basic education, Angie Motshekga, went on to further reopen other lower grades on July 6, despite the cumulative total of over 200,000 corona virus confirmed cases.  A day before the reopening, Motshekga reassured the country that her department had all their ducks in a row. 

“We have been burning the midnight oil with all education MECs. We are satisfied that the system is ready to restart amidst the new Covid-19 induced measures,” said Motshekga. 

On including the early development centers (ECDC) and pre-Grade R to return to class on the July 6, the department made a u-turn at the last moment. Their reason was that, after careful consideration, they had decided that only Grade 6, Grade 11, and Grade R will be allowed back in all provinces. The other grades will be phased in during July in due course. 

Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Basic Education in Parliament, Bongiwe Mbingo-Gigaba, welcomed the department’s readiness and commitment to ensure that all health and safety protocols were observed. 

Mbingo-Gigaba, however, said that her committee was concerned about the number of teachers and learners who have tested positive for corona virus, as well as teachers who are over the age of 60 years. 

Mbingo-Gigaba’s concern comes after director general in the department of education, Matanzima Mweli, had reported that there were 20,140 educators aged above and below 60 who had reported comorbidities. That means they are unfit to continue with their duties as they are at risk of contracting corona virus. 

A majority of these comorbidity cases is shared between the two neighbouring coastal provinces of Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. The Eastern Cape premier Oscar Mabuyane postponed the return date for pupils in Grade R, 6 and 11. He said that about 200 schools in the province were closed due to corona virus cases since the first reopening of schools in June. And between these schools there were 291 confirmed corona virus cases. 

On the other hand, KwaZulu-Natal opted to continue with its programme of learning despite confirming 262 cases. A week earlier the province explained their number of infections; 194 being educators and the rest being divided between the learners, security guards and some food handlers and office-based staff. 

“We now no longer simply close a school once a positive infection has been reported. We get guided by the health Department who says, ‘you can close this area, decontaminate it and open it within 48 hours,” MEC Kwazi Mshengu said.  

The reopening of schools did not happen without a push back from concerned stakeholders in education. As early as April, Professor Jonathan Jansen of Stellenbosch had declared “the 2020 school year is over”. Former Democratic Alliance leader, Mmusi Maimane, also weighed in stating that the decision to forge ahead with the phased reopening of schools was a risky and dangerous gamble with the lives of teachers and pupils. 

Both Maimane’s One South Africa’s Movement and #SaveOurChildren had threatened a mass action across the country if schools continue to be opened.

 “Asymptomatic children can pass on the virus; they can bring it home to adults with comorbidities. The day they opened the schools and the teachers started dying, that is state-sanctioned murder … I simply cannot sleep. I’m waiting for the call that says my child is infected,” said Abdul Kariem Matthews, of #SaveOurChildren, 

National Teachers Union president, Alan Thompson, also weighed in with his concerns that most schools were ill-prepared as teachers were overburdened as colleagues with comorbidities had not returned to work.

He said they are finding teachers teaching subjects they never taught before, which is a major problem. The department has not given us a plan to integrate the pupils from the schools that did not reopen.

“So we have Grade 12 pupils that are three weeks behind schedule compared to those of other schools, but they expected to write the same examination at the end of the year,” Thompson said.

Underprivileged schools matric pass rate may drop due to 60% loss time

The attempts to reach out to the principal of Carl Malcomess High and the school’s SGB whose school had missed two weeks after the reopening on June 8, which is additional to a month long forced closure under the lockdown, were not successful. The school, situated in Bhongweni township in Kokstad, had managed a matric pass rate of 88, 2% last year, despite its infrastructural challenges. 

Like all township schools in South Africa, Carl Malcomess’ previous matric pupils benefitted immensely from winter and spring extra-classes which took place in UMzimkhulu, situated about 50km from the school, to prepare themselves for the exams. This year there has not been any extra-classes and the school has been hit a blow after one of their teachers tested positive for corona virus just before reopening on June 8.  

Principal Bheki Ndlovu had to postpone the school’s reopening when he received a directive from Harry Gwala District Municipality’s Social, LED Development & Planning Department to temporary close for 14 days.  

“The staff member has been in contact with the entire staff and as a result have all been exposed as contacts of a known case. It is recommended that the staff be isolated and the Department of Health come and screen them, the department to make a call on the way-forward,” the letter from Harry Gwala partly read. 

One of the teachers who asked not to be mentioned said, additional to the confirmed case of their senior grades teacher, the school was not ready to reopen as per scheduled date because there were more heath and security concerns. 

After two weeks of closing, principal Ndlovu sent out a communiqué to his staff and parents to confirm reopening of school on June 29.  

“I wish to inform you all that the worse is over, much improvement had been made in as far as Covid 19 Protocol and Regulations are concerned. The school is now ready to welcome your children (our learners) back to classes,” Ndlovu wrote. 

It remains to be seen if the school, and many others across the country in the similar predicament, will be able to catch up on the lost time. Or will the department of education further reduce its pass mark to save the face? 

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