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Delays in PPEs and Covid-19 infections keep poor schools closed

Teachers and learners in rural and disadvantaged areas are adjusting to the reopening of schools for Grade 12 and Grade 7 learners this week Monday, nearly three months after a total corona lockdown was introduced at the end of March. Despite promises and intentions by the authorities, scores of schools hadn’t received masks, sanitizers, and water by the time they had to reopen. Others are battling with Covid-19 infections amongst learners and staff.

After being delayed twice due to the overwhelming backlash from teachers’ unions and parents saying schools were not ready, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga on 7 June Motshekga announced an agreement had been reached between the Department of Basic Education (DBE), teachers’ unions, and provincial education ministers and that schools would reopen the next day.

According to Motshekga, the majority of schools (95%) were ready from a health, safety, and personal protective equipment (PPE) point of view and were ready to receive learners. Education MECs added that rural and disadvantaged schools without water and sanitation were receiving “as we speak” water tanks and tankers of water.

Scores of teachers, learners, and other stakeholders from poor areas, however, are not convinced. Teacher and Eastern Cape provincial chair of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) Tabile Kunene said some schools hadn’t received enough masks and sanitizers for learners or volunteers serving food by the beginning of this week.

“There is not one school in the Elliotdale area that has received PPEs. The service provider was supposed to have delivered them to schools by Monday, then today (Tuesday) but by afternoon I heard it was not going to happen,” he said. “We can’t open schools until everyone has masks.”

He confirmed nutrition schemes would be up and running with the return of learners as the DBE already paid the food allowances to schools.

Another challenge delaying the opening up of some schools in the Eastern Cape has been the lack of water and sanitation.

“We are also not happy for learners to be sent to alternative schools if their institutions are not ready,” Kunene said. “As unions and especially Sadtu, we have said from the first day: the DBE hasn’t provided classrooms for 25 years, so how can they say they can do it in a matter of weeks?”

Activist Stanslaus Muyebe is aware of these and other problems above. “Many rural schools are not ready, and this becomes risky for learners, teachers, their families, and other stakeholders,” says the head of the Justice and Peace Department of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC), a community-based organisation that promotes social justice and fights for the human rights of marginalised communities through research, analysis, and advocacy. “This is particularly the case in the Eastern Cape and Limpopo, where many schools have struggled for years to access basic services such as water and sanitation, as well as textbooks.”

Transport provider Warren Hudson from the Mdumbi River area on the Wild Coast, said he had gone to Sikoma JSS at Mankosi on Monday to find out if the school had opened, but was met by only the gatekeeper and the gardener. He was told that although sanitisers, soaps, masks, and thermometers had arrived, the school had yet to be cleaned. He was advised to come back next week.

When asked about his opinion, Ben Machipi, general secretary of the Professional Educators Union said many rural and disadvantaged schools were and are not ready.

“It was only 85% and not 95% as reported by Motshekga. There are still no screeners at some schools and no water at others. Institutions in Newcastle and Kokstad, KwaZulu Natal, had to remain closed and in Phalaborwa, Limpopo, facilities are still waiting for water tanks and water supplies.”

One teacher in Ulundi who did not want to be named said whilst schools in the town were open and many learners had returned on 8 June, others in KwaNongoma in the heart of rural Zululand had not.

I think learners are a bit anxious and are waiting to see what happened at other schools.

In Gauteng, in the meantime, education MEC Panyaza Lesufi was happy to announce they got things started, despite some “minor teething problems” in the shape of some schools waiting for water and PPEs. Besides that, 38 institutions in the province remained closed after several teachers and learners had tested positive for the coronavirus.

In the Western Cape, South Africa’s coronavirus epicentre, Education MEC Debbie Schäfer said 13 schools were still closed this week, eleven of them because of coronavirus infections. She was not prepared to disclose information about which schools or what areas. “We are under enough stress without individual schools being named in the media, which will lead to further inquiries and added pressure. Each case has unique facts associated with it, which the schools will manage.”

Muyebe feels more transparency is required from the authorities with regards to infections amongst teachers and learners. “The general public needs and deserves that information to make decisions about whether or not to send their kids back to school.”

Teachers in the Cape Flats, which has been hit hard by the pandemic, feel that far more schools are affected by Covid-19 infections. According to Mitchell Plains teacher Lyrice Trussell, local teachers are worried about getting sick and do not want to go back to school.

“We are all worried. A teacher I know is terrified because four colleagues and a volunteer in Khayelitsha have died of Covid-19. Others have said they would rather take early retirement than catching the virus.”

Trussell believes the number of school closures is higher than Schäfer is admitting.

“Sporadic school closures will continue in the Western Cape as there are not enough teachers to cover everyone who is quarantined when there is an outbreak.”

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