Teachers across the Western Cape have been demonstrating to call for government to review its decision to allow pupils back into schools on July 6. As a result, the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) will deploy officials to schools to manage the crisis situation.
The teachers believe that schools reopening will expose both pupils and educators to COVID-19, and wrote a letter to the WCED stipulating this.
According to the province’s MEC for Education Debbie Schäfer, however, she does not see evidence of a greater rate of infection at schools than anywhere else.
“As of June 19, 375 teachers and non-teaching staff members had tested positive for COVID-19 and about 61 pupils diagnosed with the virus,” the MEC said in a statement. “The national minister made the decision to reopen schools in conjunction with health authorities and experts, who are all advising that schools should re-open, in a phased manner, and with the required health protocols in place. It is to be expected that there will be cases of COVID-19 in schools – just as we have cases in the community. However, at this stage, we don’t see evidence of a greater rate of infection at schools than anywhere else. Where schools have reported cases, the majority have only reported one.”
“So there is no evidence of mass spreading at schools. At present, less than 0.1% of learners in the grades meant to be back in class (Grade 7, 12 and School of Skills year 4) have tested positive. Staff members at schools who have tested positive account for just under 1.5% of school staff. The vast majority of under 20s who have tested positive, as well as a number of teachers, did so during lockdown, when schools were closed. So why is it that people are targeting schools as the cause of the problem? “
Every day, nearly 1 500 of the Cape’s schools are going about the daily essential task of educating learners without disruption, and the majority have not reported any cases of COVID-19, the MEC says. “So we must see positive cases at schools within this greater context. We also need to bear in mind that we are providing a public service.”
According to Schäfer, the negative impact of keeping schools closed has a negative impact on both learners and their families. “Firstly, our most vulnerable learners lose access to nutritional support on the School Nutrition Programme. With so many parents losing their jobs, this is a vital lifeline to learners reliant on the programme. Secondly, missing out on education impacts the future wellbeing, earnings, health and food security. The Brookings Institution recently estimated that the loss of future income for United States school students from just four months of school closure would be $2.5 trillion. This is not a case of ‘economy vs. lives’ – we must recognise that losing out on their education has a direct impact on their future health, food security, safety and earning capacity.”
Furthermore, parents who are not receiving government-guaranteed salaries need to be able to go to work and cannot leave their children at home alone when they should be able to go to school.
“This is evidenced by the desperate call for ECD centres to re-open. It does not make sense to close schools but allow the re-opening of the economy,” Schäfer said. “The claim in the letter from some principals that wearing a mask during the day can be deadly is absolutely dangerous fake news and goes against the advice of health experts. It is thus little wonder that teachers are too scared to go to school if this is the kind of information that they are being given, and which serves to aggravate their fears, instead of calming them down, as we expect from our school leaders.”
Schäfer has requested that her Head of Department send a suitable official to schools to assist them in the management of this crisis, and also provide calmness and clarity.
“Since teachers arrived back at school, 557 confirmed positive cases of staff members at schools (teaching and non-teaching) have been reported to us. (i.e. 22 May to date) This amounts to 1.5% of school staff members,” she said. “It is important to note that a case reported by a school does not necessarily mean the case was acquired at the school. In fact, the majority of schools affected have reported a single case, meaning it is highly unlikely that the case was acquired at school. We must expect that as background community levels of infection rise, so too will cases at schools – as is the case with shops, offices, banks, etc.”
Since learners arrived back at school, 134 confirmed positive COVID-19 cases have been reported amongst learners. This amounts to 0.09% of all learners in grades that have already returned to class (Grades 7 and 12, and School of Skills Year 4). “Again, this does not mean they acquired the infection at school,” the MEC said.
Picture: Western Cape Government