Teacher unions have requested an urgent meeting with basic education minister, Angie Motshekga amid fears over the rising number of infections in the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. The unions said this would be a crucial meeting that would inform decisions about whether their members will return to schools if they reopened on the 25th of January 25 as proposed.
They raised concerns about the number of teachers who have died of Covid-19 and those are currently infected, as well as concerns over capacity.
According to Ben Machibi, a general secretary of the Professional Educators Union, many teachers are sick and some have since passed away and this will lead to a severe shortage of teachers. He said the government and the union need to ensure that there is a teacher in front of every learner.
“The department must implement the staggered reopening of schools because if all pupils returned on the same day, it would not be possible to observe safety protocols. There will be not enough space for social distancing,” he said.
President Cyril Ramaphosa recently announced that the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) was dealing with the concern over the reopening of schools. However, the president of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation, Basil Manuel, said they were surprised when Ramaphosa did not pronounce on the reopening of schools.
“We are worried about the teens being more infectious and our high schools are full of teens and what does this mean for the teachers? We have already lost about 1,750 teachers to Covid-19 and the number is growing,” said Manuel.
“We have asked [for] a meeting with the minister as we want to understand what is going on. We have been preparing for schools to open on the announced date but at the same time there are lots of fears. We need to understand the impact that this is having on schools.”
Professor Salim Abdool Karim, scientist and chair of the Covid-19 ministerial advisory committee said his biggest concern was the disruptions that would be caused if teachers, other school staff and pupils contracted the coronavirus and forced schools to temporarily close for sanitisation.
“It may be wise to postpone the opening of schools,” Abdool Karim said.
South African Democratic Teachers Union’s general secretary, Mugwena Maluleke said in dealing with the second wave, it is critical that the number of infections must decline for 14 consecutive days before schools could reopen safely.
“If numbers aren’t declining in the 14 days, adopt blended learning where learners should be taught online and other available interventions to avoid increasing cases. The ultimate goal is to lower the numbers and eradicate the spread. Roll out the vaccine in line with the priority list for all the frontline workers,” Maluleke said.
The departments of education in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and North West said they had plans in place as they were waiting for a report from the NCCC regarding the reopening of schools. Northern Cape, Gauteng, Mpumalanga and Free State did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, Dr Simon Tshabalala, a virologist, said the new variant spreads faster due to protein changes in the spike/attachment protein and there was a higher replication of the virus.
“The variant does not mean an increase in severity of disease. With that said, it doesn’t mean when infected you are not transmitting the virus. School-going kids generally aren’t symptomatic but that does not mean they can’t get infected.”
Department of basic education spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga said health and safety measures implemented last year would remain in place.