/Mmusi Maimane: We must open our schools only when it is safe to do so

Mmusi Maimane: We must open our schools only when it is safe to do so

2020-05-29 12:01

The rush to complete the academic calendar must not supersede the lives of students, staff and communities, writes Mmusi Maimane.

“I am a mother to a pre-schooler and aunt to twins. I am not sending them to school which has poor hygiene conditions just because Angie Motshekga feels like it. They are better protected under my care. They need to engage with us on when to open schools.” – Londiwe Msomi

“I don’t have school going kids but I don’t think that kids should be used as guinea pigs. We aren’t allowed so many different things but it’s okay to send kids to school. How does this make any sense?” – Ronel Milne

“I’m a grade 12 student and I believe they playing with our lives …yes it would be sad to repeat matric next year because of a virus but consider our health please. Our lives come first.” – Mpho Davids 

“My kinders is my lewe. En nie proef konyne nie. Die Staat het geen versekering vir ons as ouers en ons almal se kinders. My kinders sal nie skool toe gaan nie. Ek’s jammer” – Nadia Smit 

These are the voices and concerns of just some of the 160 000 South Africans who have signed the petition calling on government to reconsider reopening schools on 1 June 2020.

There are thousands more who feel afraid, angry and concerned that government is acting in this matter and against clear advice to the contrary.

In ordinary times, it is indeed important that every learner finishes the academic year, that schools remain open and that our children stay in school.

This year however is not an ordinary academic year. While it is important to reopen schools, that move must be made in schools that are safe, sanitary and equal.

The rush to complete the academic calendar must not supersede the lives of students, staff and communities. 

I know a rushed job when I see one, we all do. Last week’s announcement of schools reopening by Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga just that.

Rushed, premature, ill-advised.

A half-baked plan.

Considering that schools have 13 million students, 24 000 schools, 450 000 teachers and thousands of supporting staff, we simply cannot afford a bad plan, a half-baked plan or a rushed plan.

The phased reopening will see 1.2 milion grade 7s, 1.2 million grade 12s and over 400 000 teachers returning to schools all at once.

This is a critical mass of people and a half-baked plan will unravel all the gains won from the 63 days of lockdown.  

Since her announcement, multiple reports have confirmed our original suspicions, teachers’ unions have told teachers to remain at home and the KZN MEC for education delayed the return of teachers until Thursday because of delayed deliveries.

Moreover, two schools in Cape Town had to close again due to returning teachers testing Covid-19 positive. 

The promise made by the Minister Angie Motshekga that delivery of equipment, PPEs and personal would be “just on time” hung hollow when it was made, and was proved hollow this week.

At all times it is critical that we uphold the constitutional standard when it comes to all affairs that affect our children. Section 28(2) states that “A child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child”.

This is why we as the One South Africa Movement have called for a delay in the reopening until we can be sure that schools are Covid-19 safe. We are not calling for a closure until a vaccine is found, we are advocating for certain bare minimums to be met.

This is neither unreasonable nor unjustifiable.

Our 10-point “Roadmap to Reopening” is as follows: 

  • Mandatory Covid-19 testing for each teacher, support staff member and learner. 
  • Testing teachers and all school support staff for underlying health conditions which compromise immunity.  
  • Daily temperature checks for all people entering the school grounds.  
  • Safe and adequately ventilated transport for learners.  
  • Water supply and functional bathrooms for students. 
  • Adequate personal protective equipment (PPE).  
  • Weekly disinfection of classrooms.  
  • Implementation of a rotational class schedule to reduce class sizes.  
  • Implementation of rotational and supervised break times 
  • Awareness posters on Covid-19 to be displayed in all schools.  

It is no secret that our schools are in a critical state – they are unsafe, unsanitary and unequal.

Who can forget the tragic loss of life when five-year-old Michael Komape drowned in a pit latrine.

Over the past 26 years we have all witnessed as a nation an education department that failed to deliver to the extent that they had to be taken to court to deliver on the bare minimums.

They have been taken to court for the existence of mud schools, they have been taken to court for the lack of toilets, they have been taken to court for failing to deliver textbooks, they have been taken to court for failing to provide safe learner transport. 

An honest assessment of our schools shows that we need to properly address these long festering problems.

Covid-19 did not create them, but it did make impossible to move forward without addressing them.

It’s clear that a coordinated inter-ministerial plan to fix our schools will take longer than the time that minister Angie Motshekga anticipated. We need three months of focused intervention. 

They say past is prologue.

“Just in time” delivery is simply something that this government cannot do.

This is how they tried to mask many of the gaps in their readiness for reopening.

The assertion that they will be able to deliver “just in the nick of time”. Since when?

The department of basic education has a bad track record of not delivering fully, at quality on time. They are perennially late and there is no rational reason to assume that this time will be any different.

They have, by their own admission failed to deliver PPE to school management teams on time over the past two weeks.

School management teams represent a small percentage of the school ecosystem, the DBE had to delay things by seven days to merely deliver to them.

How can we trust that they will have their act together in the next 11 days to be able to deal with an influx of three million people?

We cannot ignore the example of France, a country with classes in better state and with fully functional school facilities. They saw 70 new cases in schools when they reopened.

That was with 10 students per class in pre-school and with 15 students per class in the other grades.

I am seldom on the same side of the bench with teachers unions but in this instance, I have to agree with them.

The South African Democratic Teachers Union has been very clear that government is rushing things, so many important matters are still unattended to. 

This decision is not just about the learner.

The data on children is still inconclusive at this point and as a parent I would rather err on the side of caution than take a gamble with the life of my child.

I think this is true for every other parent in this country. 

Aside from the debate about whether young people can contract or spread the virus, there is the issue of teachers and support staff in the education system.

The teaching community has many teachers with high levels of pre-existing conditions, these reflect by and large the demographics of South Africa.

The average age of a teacher is 43 and 34% percent of our teachers are over the age of 50. It is imperative that teachers be tested for underlying conditions before they are exposed to the school environment.

450 000 tests have to be conducted on underlying conditions as well as Covid-19 itself. Screening alone is not going to be sufficient.

This is inevitably going to take some time based on our current testing turnaround time.

It would be very risky to assume that there will be zero incidents of spread among teachers and other support staff as a group.

We know that human error is always present and even with full application of PPE, social distancing and hand washing, there will be some incidents. 

We have also seen high incidence levels in the supermarket workers in Cape Town to move more carefully. If we are not careful about what we do in our schools, they will become community Petri dishes that exacerbate the spread of this horrible virus. 

One of the gaping gaps in the DBEs plan is the transportation of children.

It has been notoriously horrible for years now.

We all know that student transportation is crowded and unsafe, and thus we require a more detailed explanation of how social distancing will be maintained in the learner transport system.

If it has not been sufficient for all these years, how will it all of a sudden become sufficient?

We cannot have our kids sitting squashed like jam during one of the most challenging global health pandemics of the last 102 years.

I maintain that it is important to complete the academic year, and to provide learners with social spaces with structure.

However, there are times in history where that is not fully possible, where we have to put the brake on certain plans and deadlines because of the mitigating circumstances on the ground.

This is one of those times, we are not in a period of normal history. 

The prioritisation of “completing the academic year” cannot supersede or override the necessity for our schools to be safe, sanitary and equal. We have proposed the following in respect to the management of transition in this very abnormal year. 

In respect to the grade 12 class of 2020 we have proposed the following: 

  • Accept students to higher education institutions on the basis of grade 11 results and a university administered programme specific entry test. 
  • Put all students entering the higher education system in 2021 on extended programmes. This would mean that all students entering university next year would have one year added to their degrees, this year can be used to teach relevant material and to close the gaps in knowledge as a result of the substandard basic education system. 
  • All students enrolled in 2020 programmes will continue learning based on hybrid curriculums of 2020 and 2021 work. 
  • All other students in grades 11 and below will continue the academic programme based on where they left off before the schools were put into lockdown. 

In respect to final year University students we propose the following: 

  • Accept all final year job applicants based on their penultimate year results – with a provision that they must complete their final year online, via correspondence or part-time with their alma mater within a two-year period. 
  • All employment contracts entered into for the 2021 work year must be upheld as if the students had completed the degree. 

The matter at hand is simple.

Most of our schools are not ready to reopen.

Therefore a closure period of three months is needed to implement a “roadmap to reopening” so that no child or teacher is put in danger.

This is not a “nice to have”, it’s a necessity.

We cannot afford to gamble with the lives of our children, we cannot afford to reverse the gains of the lockdown.  

– Mmusi Maimane is the lead activist of the OneSA movement.  

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