The debate about the government’s decision to reopen schools during a pandemic dominated discussions on Wednesday at a parliamentary debate on the department of basic education’s adjusted budget, as the sector waits to hear the cabinet’s decision on the matter.
Opposition parties slammed the basic education department’s decision to reopen schools without the adequate basic infrastructure in place to contain the spread of Covid-19.
MPs also questioned the government’s decision to allow for taxis to operate at full capacity when they which are widely used by both learners and teachers.
The government is also under pressure from influential teacher unions who are calling for the closure of schools. The cabinet is expected to take a decision on the matter at a meeting scheduled for Thursday.
The department lost out on R2.1bn when finance minister Tito Mboweni tabled a supplementary budget in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis which has crippled the economy.
Basic education minister Angie Motshekga paid tribute to teachers who had lost their lives to the deadly virus.
“Speaker and honourable members, may we state the obvious, that as a sector, we are as affected by the Covid-19 pandemic as all members of society are affected,” she said.
“In fact, we are a microcosm of communities in which our schools are located. It is appropriate to show respect to the families of our school communities whose members had succumbed to the virus. May their souls rest in eternal peace. We also wish those who are currently infected by the virus a speedy recovery.
“We can report that we have escalated our consolidated report from the broad consultations we had conducted with all national stakeholders, partners, civil society organisations with a vested interest in our sector, to the interministerial disaster management committee, the national Covid-19 command council (NCCC) and cabinet for consideration.
“We will soon come back to report on the recommendations and directives of cabinet.”
‘A dangerous experiment’
Opposition MPs took turns lambasting the government for the decision to reopen.
The DA’s Nomsa Marchesi said while her party was in favour of the opening of schools, basic conditions must be met to ensure the safety of those in attendance.
“Unfortunately, promises were made to provide Covid-19 essentials such as sanitisers and masks but none of these commitments were met with additional budget,” she said.
“Instead the sector was dealt with budget cuts and reprioritisation, which meant provinces were to use 20% of their Education Infrastructure Grant to meet their Covid-19 priorities.
“This is a shame. It is a shame because efforts to address sanitation, inadequate and poor infrastructure [and an] IT infrastructure backlog were now put on the back-burner and therefore will not be addressed in the foreseeable future.
“The 16,168 teachers with comorbidities are still yet to be replaced. With now a definite direction with re-phasing, and with millions spent on PPEs to protect teachers and learners at school, the government decided to ease the taxi industry relations by allowing 100% capacity load, which mean learners can travel in a taxi that is not complying with social distancing regulations and end up at a school that has worked hard to control the infections but could now put all at risks because of this decision.”
The EFF’s Reneiloe Mashabela slammed the government for failing to ensure quality personal protective equipment, saying that schools had been saddled with shoddy masks and sub-par sanitisers, putting the lives of learners and teachers at risk.
She said teachers had also not yet been given proper training on the Covid-19 protocols.
“Learners and teachers are being used in a dangerous experiment while politicians work from home with heaters and fireplaces,” said Mashabela, adding that children were being sent to school to die.
The National Freedom Party’s Ahmed Munzoor Shaik Emam also lamented the absence of a contingency plan for teachers living with comorbidities, which could have fatal consequences should they contract the virus.
He said instead, the government had opted to pile people “on top of each other” in taxis.
Emam said the government had dismissed “guidance” from a number of structures that warned against the return to school ahead of the Covid-19 peak.
Motshekga said she would not respond to the criticism levelled at her department for reopening schools as the matter was before the cabinet.
She said MPs gave the impression that she was “stubborn” and unilaterally made decisions, when this was not the case. She said she had consulted widely with formal structures, who had signed off on the opening of schools.
The minister also slammed the mention of the late Michael Komape — who fell into a pit latrine at school and lost his life — by MPs who used him and others to make their point about the recklessness of the government.
She said it was shameful that MPs were “invoking the death of children to try and be relevant”.
“Let the souls of Michael Komape and others rest in peace,” she added.