By Nirupa Chaithram
Dear Mrs Motshekga
I write to you to express my sense of mind filled with many questions about the proposal by the Ministry of Education to re-open South African Schools in order to save the 2020 academic year.
I am also cognisant that the re-opening of schools also contributes to the re-opening of the economy. Parents would need to go back to work to do this. How would they go back to work without having a support structure for their children ?
Maybe companies need to change its “work from home protocols” and offer care giving structures for those workers who are in operations and the like. I am also cognisant that we also want learners to go back to school to continue their education journey. But before we review this conundrum, I have the following questions, which in my view links to the preservation of life. Schools are a varied mix of learners, educators, cleaners, and other support staff. This excludes adhoc persons visiting schools.
Top of mind priority for many parents may be : how might the trade-off between concerns for learners and educators health and safety and concerns about academic progress best be handled ? I therefore ask of the Subject Matter Experts in both the fields of Health and Education to kindly propose mitigations to my risks raised (by this I mean explaining the most basic and transparent step by step activities for each of the mitigations and not a high level view).
For example, what criteria will be in place for each activity required for the safe re-opening of schools? Maybe these detailed efforts are in place, but I ask for this to be communicated to all. I am humbly seeking a granular level approach to the mitigations by our experts. Further, that a consultation process is established once mitigations are proposed All I am seeking are levels of comfort in that the safety of South African learners are guaranteed.
My perceived concerns :
1. HUNGER AND STARVATION in RELATION to the RE-OPENING of SCHOOLS: Whilst hunger and starvation may seem like an unrelated broader national issue, I do believe that there is a link between both education and food availability as follows. It is noted that many children attend school and receive meals at school. For many, these are the only meals they receive. Is there a logistics plan in place to deploy food to learners whilst learners are still on lockdown? Has the plan for the distribution of food to learners been executed during the lockdown? If not WHY? Will we see more dying of hunger and starvation versus C0vid 19 ?
2. PEOPLE: LEARNERS, EDUCATORS, CAREGIVERS, OTHERS IN THE SCHOOL ECOSYSTEM
2.1 High Risk Learners (HIV/AIDS, TB, respiratory disorders etc) : Do we know how many learners are high risk to COVID 19? Once we know this do we have a plan in place ensuring that these learners are also given an opportunity to safe learning and education at schools, as this is their democratic right. We have banned the sale of cigarettes to protect our adults. We have also banned the sale of alcohol to keep our trauma units free of alcohol related issues. Are we now saying that we are prepared to send our high risk learners across a mine field with so many unknowns ? The possibility of one learner dying, due to infection within the school environment is one too many (if we feel that this analogy is too extreme, then I refer you to the use of this analogy by our president His Excellency Cyril Ramaphosa and the President of Ghana)
2.2 Are Children Vectors to the Transmission of COVID 19 especially to the Elderly Caregivers: We are aware that most historically disadvantaged communities have their children being cared for by the elderly. Professor Abdool Karim advised that we need to protect the elderly at all costs as they are high risk to the contraction of COVID 19. How then do we allow for children to go to school and carry the virus to the elderly ? Of course others like Professor Schabir Madhi believe that children are not vectors of the virus.
How then does he contradict himself by adding in that children should still social distance and “partition themselves” from the elderly? He suggested that children do not share towels, utensils, etc with their elderly caregivers. HOW is this possible ? Especially when a large component of our South African population live in small confined spaces, with NO luxury of having separate utensils and towels ? Let’s assume for one moment that Professor Madhi’s theory is correct, that children may not be the vectors to the transmission of COVID 19. Will their books, clothing and bags not then be the “carriers” of the virus ?
He advised unequivocally that children will not be the vectors of COVID 19, but the most likely vectors could be the educators. So how then are schools to be re-opened and remain functional in this event ? I would also like to seek the guidance of our health experts on the fears related to the rising number of COVID 19 related illness in children, which seems to go against Professor Madhi’s view above.
2.3 Learner Psychosocial Support: Children and adolescents have different responses to stress and anxiety. Little learners are already looking at Covid- 19 as the “monster” as they note many globally are being impacted. Older children may cover up their fears. We have seen this across the board in the rate of increase of teen suicide. A matriculant (under normal circumstances) has many fears about his/her final exams. Did we survey their state of mind ahead of writing their final exams under the “new normal” ? This is critical. When will the survey be done by the Department of Basic Education PRIOR to schools re-opening to anticipate this extremely serious area of pyscho-social impact on our learners ? Once this is completed PRIOR to the re-opening of schools, what measures shall be put in place for our learners ?
2.4 The Quality of the Matric Pass of 2020: The focus is heavily on matriculants. In our pursuit of re-opening schools, is there a scenario plan for completing the matric syllabus at various re-opening dates ? Will there be compression of the syllabus? Will there be further normalisation of the bell curve to ensure the quota of matriculants make it to tertiary education in 2021 ? If so, what will the quality of the matric pass bode for tertiary education ? Would our matriculants be able to hold their pass with confidence in their own ability ? If not how do we deal with this further psychological burden on our matriculants ?
2.5 Parents and Caregivers working on the Frontline: In every school, we will find learners who have their parents or caregivers who work on the frontline. These learners could be the main carriers of the Corona Virus to other learners and also to educators. What if they carry this to learners who are high risk, for example learners with HIV/AIDS, diabetics, respiratory disorders etc ? Is there a survey that the Department of Education has carried out to establish these statistics ?
2.6 The Common Cold and Flu versus Covid 19 : Who, at school, will be qualified to distinguish this amongst learners, educators, cleaning staff and all others who form part of the schools ecosystem ? How will this be determined ?
2.7 Educators : Is there a survey which shows how many educators have co-morbidities like diabetes, hypertension or are high risk for Covid 19. If so what is the mitigation for these ? We do know that people with co-morbidities or who are high risk individuals are not recommended to go back to work. This should surely apply to educators ? If so, have we ascertained how many “spare” experienced educators we have to fill in for those who cannot be at school ?
2.8 What constitutes an outbreak amongst all within the school ecosystem ? We have seen that if a person at company or hospital or workplace is Covid 19 positive, then that institution is closed off. What happens in the case of a learner at school contracting Covid-19? The school will surely shut down. This means that all other learners at that particular school will be “casualties of war” and be denied of education during this time of shutdown. Will other schools also be shut down ? If not, does this not mean that these learners in the affected school will be denied of their democratic right to education? Or will we wait until an outbreak is declared to shut the schooling sector down again ? What does an outbreak mean and how will it be defined in the context of Covid-19 in lay terms ?
3. INFRASTRUCTURE AND PLANS AHEAD OF SCHOOLS RE-OPENING:
3.1 Granular and detailed Plan for the re-opening of schools: Please share the detailed and cohesive implementation plans ahead of schools re-opening ? For example, what does “deep sanitisation” of schools entail? Who will check the quality of this cleaning effort etc ? What criteria will be in place for each activity required for the safe re-opening of schools? Maybe these detailed efforts are in place, but I again ask for this to be communicated to all.
3.2 Water and toilets: It is understood that there could be around 3500 schools without access to water. And a further number of schools do not have toilets. When will these impacted schools be offered basic water and sanitation ? Should we not implement these basics (which ought to have been in place by now) FIRST before re-opening of schools so as NOT to prejudice those learners who do not have ?
3.3 Phasing in of Grades: With the phasing in solution, will teaching time be extended ? What does this mean for learners travelling via public transport ? What does this mean for educators car-pooling and /or travelling also via public transport ? How do we anticipate the phasing in proposal in overcrowded schools ?
3.4 Township and Poorer Schools: It is known that township schools with large numbers per class may need extra classrooms to comply with physical distancing requirements. What does the project plan timings look like for extra classrooms to be built or put in place, and how are we tracking with this ahead of schools re-opening ? For some like Professor Madhi, and other advocates who are advocating for the re-opening of schools, are their children schooling in schools which allow for physical distancing ? Do they face the same constraints that poorer schools face, where we see an average of 40 children in a class ?
3.5 Books: We understand that Covid- 19 remains alive on different types of surfaces for different amounts of time. We also understand that money may be a medium for the spread of Covid-19. So will learners books not allow the virus to spread ? How then would educators mark books? How then do parents or caregivers check homework ?
3.6 Text Books: It is known that most learners share text books. With the physical distancing requirements, would there be sufficient text books in readiness for ALL learners ahead of the re-opening of schools?
3.7 Masks : Let’s assume that ALL learners irrespective of the quintile they are in, receive masks by the Department of Basic Education. How do little learners avoid exchanging their masks with each other ? How do the audio impaired learners understand the lesson with the educator wearing a mask ? Are there guidelines for little learners not to suffocate in masks ? Is it hygienic and safe for learners to wear the same mask for 7-10 hours (inclusive of those that may spend travel time in public transport). Are learners and educators needing to be trained on the basics of donning and doffing processes ? Contact based teaching is about reading body language as well. How will educators teach learners with a mask on ?
3.8 Public Transport: What does a typical public transport schedule, on a per area basis, look like ? Do learners have to leave home extra early, to make the start of school, and reach home much later based on the physical distancing requirements ? If so what are the security and safety protocols then for learners in extended travelling times ? Will public transporters be satisfied with the lower income per trip to transport fewer learners ? Please share the mitigations against this.
4. MUTATION : We understand that every virus mutates as part of its life cycle. The word mutate naturally conjures up feelings of immense fear. Is there sufficient scientific evidence of mutation and its impact on the quick re-opening of schools ?
5. THE HAVE and THE HAVE-NOTS: This paragraph is not posed in the context of being bitter to those who can afford good education. We note that a minority are receiving online interactive lessons from schools and further extra tuition from external tutors. How then do we level the playing field to be inclusive of the majority ? Or do the majority get left behind ? Could we not use this time before we re-open schools to level out the playing fields for equal access to education for all learners in South Africa ?
Nirupa Chaithram is a concerned mother, who speaks on behalf of concerned mothers across South Africa.
The views expressed above are that of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Coronavirusmonitor.co.za