Basic education minister Angie Motshekga says the government is satisfied that its systems are ready – and have been ready – for the reopening of schools this week.
Motshekga told MPs that the department did everything possible to make sure they prioritise the safety of pupils, teachers and other staff working at schools.
She was participating in a heated parliamentary debate on the phased-in reopening of schools, where opposition parties – both for and against the reopening of schools – criticised the government’s decisions on the handling of basic education as it related to the pandemic.
Motshekga rejected the criticism. “We’ve been burning the midnight oil with our MECs and we are satisfied that the system is ready, and has been ready, for a start,” she said.
“We have endeavoured to do everything in our power that while we rescue the academic year of 2020 we also make sure it is not at all costs. The safety of our children and our educators and workers remain paramount.”
Grades R, 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 10 and 11 went back to school on Monday, while grades 7 and 12 went back earlier this month. These represent 90% of all pupils. The remaining 10% – grades 5 and 8 – will go back next week.
Motshekga said since the second restart of schools, teachers have also gone back in large numbers.
“What was encouraging to us is that people who matter … at some stage we have to know, in consultation there is a start and a stop,” she said in response to criticism of inadequate consultation” .
“We have consulted more than 60 organisations. I had a platform where I spoke to more than 200 NGOs, I had consulted all teacher unions and I had consulted all parents and all different associations in the sector. So I am not sure what more consultations are we talking about in the sector.”
The minister admitted that after schools reopened in June, a number of teachers presented “some level of infections”, which matched infections in their communities.
She said 78 teachers have died as a result of Covid-19 related causes, while eight non-teaching staff had succumbed to the disease.
Among learners, 1,176 had been infected, and there have been no fatalities.
The staggered approach adopted by most schools would ensure there was no overcrowding at schools, said Motshekga.
“Our strategy to rescue 2020, this staggered approach, is predicated on two pillars – it’s around the curriculum training for all the grades, except for grade 12.”
She said they were also on course to deliver the full curriculum for grade 12 so that their exit qualification enjoins them the same status as the previous cohort.
‘Basic sanitation infrastructure is a dream for many schools’
Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) MP Siphosethu Ngcobo criticised Motshekga, saying her decision to adopt a phased-in approach to the reopening of schools was followed by a lot of problems.
He said the IFP would have preferred the government to allow the curve to reach its peak before thinking about sending learners back to school.
Ngcobo criticised the government’s failure to provide basic sanitation and minimum infrastructure at some schools in poor areas.
“This shows the phased-in approach to be completely irrational, given that there is no water available for a vast amount of learners to wash their hands. The situation is so bad that even access to the most basic sanitation infrastructure is a dream for many schools,” he said.
“This becomes even more important when one considers that schools are public places, with teachers, learners and other staff making use of shared facilities. This increases the risk of contracting the coronavirus.
“Without these most basic preventive measures in place, it is obvious that the phase-in approach is not the safest, most reasonable option as doesn’t take into account the interest of our children and teachers.”
Ngcobo also slammed the widespread looting of resources meant to mitigate the effects of Covid-19, describing this as a virus that flourished during this period.
The DA’s Nomsa Marchesi criticised the continued closure of schools after the hard lockdown, saying it was not based on prioritising the future of learners.
“It was purely political, with no scientific evidence,” she said.
Marchesi accused the government of blatantly ignoring advice from the World Health Organisation (WHO), which endorsed medical evidence that the transmission of the virus by children is low and that this fact should influence specific decisions in relation to schools reopening.
“We all agree that life is vital, and we must do everything we can to protect all lives,” she said.
“Equally so, we cannot stand by and watch as the futures of our children are trampled upon and discarded by unions, the indecisiveness of this government and lack of implementation.”
Marchesi also criticised the halting of the school nutrition programme, the failure to send books to learners, and the failure to replace elderly teachers with severe comorbidities, as earlier promised by Motshekga.
The EFF’s Reneiloe Mashabela also felt that the schools were not ready to reopen and neither was the department.
“We risk killing both our children and our teachers,” she said.
Mashabela said the closure of schools due to Covid-19, and the “rushed” reopening thereafter, exposed the depth of the ANC’s neglect of the education system.
The department of education had not been able to meet its own basic norms and standard for schools infrastructure, and this had been the case for years, she said.
“Towards the end of 2019, only 56% of schools in the country complied with minimum physical infrastructure standards, only 76% of schools had running water and 80% had adequately functioning sanitation,” said Mashabela.
Covid-19 struck South Africans in the midst of dysfunctionality in the education system, she added – and returning to school would require sufficient classrooms in order for both teachers and pupils to observe social distancing.
The United Democratic Movement’s Nqabayomzi Kwankwa said the government, in its decision to implement a phased-in approach to the reopening of schools, had squandered an opportunity to properly prepare the basic education system.
He said many schools, especially in rural provinces like the Eastern Cape and Limpopo, still had no safety or precautionary measures in place.
Kwankwa warned that the phased-in system followed by the government would worsen inequalities as affluent schools were not as severely affected as those in poorer communities.