South African teachers’ unions warn against reopening schools without proper precautions

Five unions in the education sector have advised their members to not return to schools unless PPE is provided and the premises are sanitized. Classes are set to resume in South Africa on June 1 and teachers have to report for duty on May 25

May 22, 2020 by Peoples Dispatch
South Africa school reopening
(Photo: Pixabay)

Five teachers’ unions in South Africa have advised their members against entering school premises unless the staff is provided with necessary protective gear and the schools are cleaned and disinfected. 

This advice was issued in a joint statement by the unions on May 20 – a day after the South African government announced that schools will reopen starting from June 1. Teachers and management staff are required to return to work from May 25.

However, according to the results of a survey conducted by the unions between May 16-18, 95% of the classrooms and 92% of the staff offices in schools across the country have not been sanitized yet. The five unions which commissioned this survey are the Professional Educators’ Union (PEU), South African Teachers’ Union (SAOU), National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa (NAPTOSA), South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) and the National Teachers Union (NATU).

Of the 9,365 schools which responded to the survey from all the nine provinces of the country, “92% of schools…report that they do not have material for cleaning and disinfecting the premises on a daily basis,” the summary of the findings highlights.

The survey further revealed that “78% of schools.. report that sanitation facilities do not have soap and water.” Moreover, 42% of the schools are dependent on water tanks for the supply of running water and 39% have not received this supply from the government. The water shortage is especially acute in schools in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo provinces.

Further, 79% of the schools are yet to receive instructions from authorities about the necessary health and safety regulations to be followed while operating schools during the COVID-19 emergency. The total confirmed novel coronavirus cases in South Africa have exceeded 18,000.

According to the survey, the school principal has not even been contacted in 60% of the cases by the Circuit Manager, who acts as the main intermediary between the government and the schools. “We are advised that learners and teachers need a minimum of 2 masks,” the unions said. However, this has been made available in only 1% of the surveyed schools. 

Despite this, the government has instructed teachers to return to work on May 25. “We will start with grades 7 and 12 and small schools. The other grades will follow in due course,” minister of basic education Angie Motshekga had said, while announcing the reopening dates.

She said that the government is undertaking the adequate provisioning of masks, sanitation and water facilities and other materials required to regularly disinfect surfaces on school premises.

Giving an assessment of the progress made in this direction so far, Motshekga claimed, “The reports we got are showing that preparations have been taking place and good progress has been made. All indications are that the preconditions for the reopening of schools will be met obviously with the premium being on saving lives.”

However, unions opposed these claims the following day, saying that it was such statements by the government that have compelled them to make the results of the survey publicly available, “because there are definite discrepancies” between the government’s claims and the data from the survey.

“The challenges being faced by more rural provinces (Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo) reflect underlying structural inequalities. We need firm, time-bound plans to sustainably address these beyond” the immediate measures to check the spread of COVID-19, the unions said.

While reiterating that they “will continue to make a positive contribution.. by conducting weekly surveys to assist informed decision making and sharing the results nationally and provincially,” the unions unequivocally made it clear that their members should not enter school premises until it is disinfected and they are provided with the necessary protective gear. 

Media reports indicate that many parents are unwilling to send their children to school and would rather have them lose an academic year. Deputy basic education minister Makgabo Mhaule said that the parents’ anxiety was understandable.

But her statement -“If you say my child will not attend a physical school, then arrange for the home schooling and you will be supported if you follow all the guidelines” – may have left many more parents more anxious about the future of their child’s education.