In light of a warning by the World Health Organisation (WHO) with regard to the reopening of schools while Covid-19 is approaching its peak, President Cyril Ramaphosa says the matter is currently under discussion.
The WHO this week said the reopening of schools in any country would only be safe in the context of low community transmissions of Covid-19.
South Africa is now fast approaching its peak, with confirmed cases exceeding 300 000 and with Ramaphosa announcing to the country on Sunday that the Covid-19 storm had arrived.
South African pupils have been gradually returning to classrooms, with matriculants and Grade 7 learners starting in June, followed by other grades and Grade R learners this month.
Schools were shut in March when Ramaphosa implemented a hard lockdown.
On Wednesday evening, the president, during a virtual Imbizo with different communities across the country, said because of the stance of the WHO and the country’s largest teachers’ union Sadtu (SA Democratic Teachers Union), the matter needed to be reviewed again.
He also acknowledged that, since the decision to open schools, a number of teachers and learners had been infected by the virus.
“There has been a clear voice and message coming from the teacher unions and a number of other people; we are going to listen to that, we are going to engage,” said the president.
[Read] President Cyril Ramaphosa has assured South Africans that saving lives during this pandemic is important as government is set to engage stakeholders in the education sector on the reopening schools.#COVID19 #PresidentialImbizo https://t.co/r4bkp5DIty pic.twitter.com/Y2p1biK4w3
— @SAgovnews (@SAgovnews) July 16, 2020
Ramaphosa also said his government was not weighing up the academic year against the number of lives which could be lost.
“We must do everything possible to save lives, it’s not a matter of weighing up a threshold… that is an approach I don’t even want to see, I don’t even want to get to or I don’t even want any of us to talk about how many lives we must lose,” responded the president to one of the questions posed.
He said his government’s priority has always been, first, to save lives and, then, to save livelihoods.
Sadtu’s call was echoed by the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of SA (Naptosa), with political parties like the EFF, which rejected the reopening of schools when the plan was first suggested, and the ANC calling for caution in this regard.
Ramaphosa, who is known for his consensus-building approach to issues, said the debate and discussion on whether schools should or should not reopen must not be “finger-pointing” exercises, but a way to seek solutions and chart a way around the matter.
“It’s also to listen to those who say don’t close,” he said, pointing out that he had engaged with learners who were happy when places of learning opened and told him they preferred it that way.
The president said all key role players in education had to be heard on the way forward.
“It’s like crossing the river by feeling our way through stones, sometimes you step on slippery rocks, sometimes on firm ones,” said Ramaphosa to describe efforts in guiding the country through the global health crisis.