The Minister of Basic Education last night, 19 May 2020, addressed the country on the re-opening of schools and the state of readiness to receive teachers and learners back at school.
The Minister and the Department must be complimented – they have mastered the art of vagueness and generalities. Statements like “The first consignments have arrived in schools and more deliveries will be made as time progresses”; “The reports we got are showing that preparations have been taking place and good progress has been made” and “All indications are that the preconditions for the reopening of schools will be met…” sounds positive, but says very little.
Juxtapose this against the results of a survey conducted on behalf of education unions amongst a considerable sample of 9365 schools across the country over the period 16 to 18 May 2020 and the Minister’s optimism must be questioned. When for example 79% of the respondents report that they have not received regulations on how to deal with health and safety issues, when 60% report that their circuit manager has not yet been in touch with them and when 92% of respondents report that offices have not yet been cleaned and sanitised, you know there is a problem. But the Minister cleverly deflected these real facts by stating that school readiness will progress as we count down to the re-opening of schools.
The issue of comorbidities remains one of the critical issues for members and it was hoped that the Minister would give definitive answers in this regard, because what we currently have are only draft guidelines from the Department. Unfortunately, we are none the wiser after the Minister’s address, having stated that they are working with the DPSA and would be issuing guidelines. We do not need guidelines; we need firm policy on this matter so that members clearly know what is expected of them if these risk factors are applicable to them. What is disturbing, is that on this and other matters, reference was made to documents that will be placed on the Department’s website. These are matters that directly concern the employees of the employer. They should not have to go and read it on the website, but it should be communicated to them directly. If the Department is unable to do so, the documentation should at least be made available to the unions for dissemination to members.
On the provisioning of water, we are expected to be satisfied with the assurance that “Just-in -time” delivery will be made to schools that do not currently have adequate water supply. This whilst our survey indicates that only 3% of schools surveyed, and that are dependent on water tanks, have received them.
NAPTOSA supports the re-engineering of the basic education system to manage the academic year and recover lost time. As a union we remain involved in work on the curriculum. We await the reworked school calendar and expect it to be published before the re-opening of schools. We also call on the Minister to take us into her confidence on any expected changes to the 2021 school calendar, having intimated in her remarks that it could be on the cards. The sooner this matter is resolved the better.
The re-opening of the Nutrition Programme when Gr 7 and 12 learners return to school, as well the assurance that food handlers will have the required PPEs, are welcomed. This is an area where the impact of the lockdown has been greatly felt. The recognition of the important role to be played by psychological services to address the social, mental, psychological and emotional difficulties amongst learners, educators and education support personnel is heartening, as is the recognition that special schools need a different approach.
NAPTOSA rejects the idea that educators from other grades will be expected to teach Gr 7 and 12 learners when they return to school. Apart from the fact that these educators are not necessarily skilled and subject knowledgeable to teach learners in these grades, it is unclear who will be taking their places when the learners in the grades that they normally teach also return to school in subsequent phases. If this is an attempt to justify why all teachers must report for duty on 25 May 2020, it is a poor effort.
The re-opening of schools cannot be indefinitely postponed. It does, however, not mean that members must be placed in situations where their health and safety are compromised. NAPTOSA will therefore be guided in its advice to members by union-conducted follow-up surveys on the readiness of schools, definitive departmental decisions on the application of comorbidities and all other available information. But as stated before, it will ultimately be up to members to be the union’s monitors and to advise where the health and safety measures are lacking in their schools.
Before teachers and education support personnel return to school we again demand that the Minister takes the responsibility and officially declares that all non-negotiables have been complied with, steering away from vague promises in this regard.