The debate rages on as SA schools are closed once again – for four weeks this time … and parents and unions are becoming increasingly vocal. But what do educators think?

Jolene Ostendorf, deputy head of Hillcrest Primary in KZN, weighs in on the great schools debate, and shares why she thinks school may be the safest place for your child at the moment.

“I see a couple of people on my timeline support the call for schools in SA to be closed, so I thought it might be time to share my experiences. As most of you know, I am one of the deputy principals at a very large primary school – over 1000 kids. We are also one of the fortunate ones that have been able to welcome all our kiddies from Grade R to 7 back, full time for the past few weeks.

“In a nutshell, if the media is to be believed, I should be walking into a cesspool of COVID infection every single day”

As of today, our positive cases number is two. That’s 0,2% of our total school population. We are not doing anything special like disinfectant tunnels etc. So are we just lucky? I doubt it – what we are seeing is that kids are better at this than adults. We’ve told the kids to wear their masks and wash their hands. And guess what? They do it! They are not interested in a big political statement or complaining about feeling stifled etc.

“My new hobby is looking at the Facebook profiles of the parents who question and criticise schools relentlessly about safety in schools”

Almost every single one has pictures of the parent posing mask-less with their friends during a time we’ve been told to stay at home. I’ve sent far more kids home due to exposure from weekend activities than any possible exposure at school.

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You want to close the schools?! Understand that schools are this country’s lynch pin industry. Our economy relies on parents having a safe place for their kids to go while they are at work. For hundreds of thousands of children, school is also where they get a regular meal. It’s where they are safe from abuse. If you think that doesn’t apply to your community, you’re wrong. Wealthier communities are just better at hiding the abuse that exists. Teach online! How are households supposed to manage online learning for multiple children while still working – with limited devices?

Finally, if you still think schools should close, you should know that about 200 000 teachers in SA are school-paid

This doesn’t include admin staff and support staff. Close schools, and tens of thousands of school employees will be without jobs. And we won’t be losing the lazy teachers we don’t want in classrooms anyway – we’ll be losing thousands of young, enthusiastic teachers who are currently working their butts off to make sure your child catches up.

“We can close schools for many months, but I guarantee that we will feel the repercussions for generations to come – starting with increased class sizes, no more school sport, no more drama or music, no more excursions … the list is endless. The ‘boring’ education we’re being forced into at the moment? That will be the norm.

Think before you say ‘Close schools’.”

We spoke to Jolene about the support she’s getting from parents and staff at her school, and the response was really positive

“There are a few cases of parents who are feeling anxious about the schools returning, and have opted to keep their children at home. In most of these cases the fear is not so much about the child’s safety (unless they have severe underlying health issues), but rather for elderly relatives who may live with the family, or members of the household who are susceptible to the virus. The vast majority of parents are only too happy to have their children back at school.

We have a huge staff (approximately 165 staff members) so it would be cavalier of me to say that all feel safe and are positive about being at school, but almost all of them are more than happy to be back at school.

Teachers typically don’t take well to sitting still and staying at home; we are typically very social people, so the lockdown period was especially hard on many teachers – emotionally speaking. So it has been a relief for most staff to be back in a routine. There were a few jitters when we first came back about the safety measures being put in place, but once people could see for themselves the lengths the Management team and the school governing body have gone to in order to protect them, everyone settled back into the school with comfort.

If a parent does not want to send their child to school during the pandemic, is the child allowed to study at home and do you have an alternative online system if they choose to remain at home?

This has been a rather frustrating question to answer in the past few weeks, as we have had very little practical guidance from the Department of Basic Education about this, so each school has been making their own arrangements. Fortunately, the latest gazette that was released this weekend clarifies this to a greater degree.

We have allowed learners, with good reason, to learn from home. Although we make some work available online to download, we have found that the majority of parents prefer to pick up work packs from the school.

We are seeing that the cost of data and printing is taking its toll on those learning at home. We don’t offer online learning in the sense that we record or stream lessons. To do so is actually a little more complicated than people think.

Firstly, our teachers’ first priority has to be to the learners in the class and there is already added responsibility over and above teaching content at the moment due to the frequent reminders to comply with the safety protocols.

The other thing we have borne in mind is that to film or stream a lesson when there are other learners in the classroom is against the POPI act, so if done properly schools should be recording these lessons completely separate to any other learners – few schools have the capacity to do this, in my experience.