As South Africa enters the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, with almost 300,000 confirmed cases, the debate over whether schools should open continues to rage…
On Tuesday evening, South African Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize confirmed 298 292 Covid-19 cases in South Africa, with 10 496 new cases identified. Total deaths to date stand at 4 346.
Should schools be opening during the peak of the pandemic?
The World Health Organisation says ‘no’.
WHO Emergency Programme Executive Director Dr Michael Ryan says the best time to reopen schools is during low community transmission. He addressed the issue in a media briefing held by the WHO on 13 July.
“The best and safest way to reopen schools is in the context of low community transmission, that has been effectively suppressed by a broad-based, comprehensive strategy,” said Dr Ryan.
“We can’t move from ‘let’s deal with the schools’ and then we all deal with that for a week or two, and then ‘let’s deal with the workplace’ and then we all deal with that for a week or two, and then ‘let’s deal with infection rate in hospitals or long-term care facilities’. This is playing whack-a-mole.
“We have got to focus on a comprehensive, long-term strategy that focuses on everything at one time.
Dr Ryan warned against politicising schools reopening
He said it would be unfair on children to turn the reopening of schools into “another political football game”. Governments should base their decisions on the best interests of the children – both in terms of their education and their health.
These decisions should be backed up by data.
“There are many countries around the world in which schools are reopening. Successfully and safely. Because countries have dealt with the real problem: Community Transmission,” says Dr Ryan.
Listen to Mike Ryan on community transmission levels & the importance of looking at the whole picture in each local setting
Especially regarding debates on the reopening of schools https://t.co/Z23K1v5x70
— Dr. Michelle Kelly-Irving (@shell_ki) July 14, 2020
SADTU calls for schools to close due to high community transmissions
On Tuesday, the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU) held a special meeting to come up with an urgent response to the spikes in Covid-19 cases in SA schools
“The rate of community transmissions are impacting on schooling. The frontline workers who are at the coalface of the pandemic have been infected and affected. We are in a crisis and every life matters,” said a statement by the union.
“The special NEC resolved that the schools should close until after the peak. The pandemic has led to a pandemonium in the education sector and this can be linked to the lack-lustre leadership that we have been experiencing from the Department of Basic Education at various levels.”
The union said that the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, had not complied with its demands to ensure the safety of teachers and learners.
The union said that three factors had informed its call to close schools:
- The fact that the country was reaching peak infections and community transmission was escalating
- Scientific evidence on how the virus affects and infects children continues to change. Evidence on how the virus spreads is also continually evolving.
- Inconsistencies in the application of health protocols in schools.
“The situation is dire and impacts on everyone in the community and not only schools because schools are the microcosm of the society.”
NAPTOSA also calls for the closure of schools
In a statement on Tuesday evening, the executive director of NAPTOSA, Basil Manuel, said this resolution was taken at its national standing committee meeting on Tuesday afternoon.
“On 1 July 2020, NAPTOSA called on the minister to reconsider the opening of schools. We asked her not to be fixated on a calendar,” said Manuel.
“Our national standing committee resolved today to request that the minister close schools. The WHO has advised that schools should close during the peak of the pandemic. The President himself on Sunday advised that the ‘storm is upon us’.
“We are calling on the minister to close schools until the peak flattens. We’re not calling for the abandonment of the school year – closure without a plan is irresponsible. Ample can still be achieved but not at the cost of our teachers, education workers, parents, and children’s physical and mental health.”
Government on Friday slammed the ‘political ball game’
On Friday 10 July‚ the Council of Education Ministers (CEM)‚ led by Motshekga‚ the calls to close schools around the country.
In a statement after the council’s meeting the CEM called for organisations to engage politically instead of drawing the public into the matter.
“The CEM appeals to all aggrieved political and civic organisations to rather engage with their political counterparts and authorities at their usual platforms. These platforms are appropriate avenues to register their concerns and complaints‚ and not our centres of learning and development. The unfolding political ball game does not belong in schools.
“Failure to desist from these regrettable acts will leave us no choice but to exercise our options‚ as per the dictates of the SA Schools Act‚ to make sure we protect our schools‚ educators and pupils‚ and the rights and interests of parents who wish to take their children back to school.”
The South African Government cannot save The Academic Year and save lives at the same time! They have to focus on one! SADTU really needs to take a Stand Guy’s our Parents lives are at Risk here! #COVID19SouthAfrica #SADTU
— Abongwe_Njobe (@AbongweNjobe) July 14, 2020
Teacher unions SADTU and NAPTOSA say schools should close again. Doctors have said that children are safe at school. The Basic Education Department says Cabinet will make a final decision. Should schools close again? What would be the consequences? @SAfmRadio #safmsunrise
— Stephen Grootes (@StephenGrootes) July 15, 2020
NAPTOSA has highlighted one important aspect about life at school currently and that is the mental health of the teachers and that they definitely aren’t focusing on quality teaching as they should but worried about getting infected.
— Dabane (@Mkhu28) July 15, 2020
Many are anxious, but my sense the majority are ok. Key issues now are balancing all the management efforts to keep schools functioning safely in hotspots, and supporting children with food etc and to learn at home – in high levels of poverty
— Mary Metcalfe (@metcalfemary11) July 15, 2020