‘Opening schools at this stage would be committing genocide’ – Educators Union of South Africa

KABELO MAHLOBOGWANE, Gauteng Secretary EUSA (centre) with other union leaders arriving at the Pretoria High Court for the interdict against the Minister of Basic Education

‘THERE is no way schools can be opened at this stage because that would be committing genocide,’ Educators Union of South Africa (EUSA) Secretary Kabelo Mahlobogwane warned last Friday.

He was speaking ahead of a victory for the teacher trade unions, which forced the South African government to back down late on Sunday and reverse its plan to force schools to reopen on Monday 1st June.

The Department of Education did a last minute about-turn and announced that pupils will now return on 8th June, but teacher unions and associations say the new date is still not realistic.

Teaching unions met with Education Minister Angie Motshekga on Saturday in a bid to convince her that, despite her insistence that the phased reopening of schools would commence on Monday, the system is simply not ready to do so in its current state.

‘Our position still stands. We met with the department yesterday (Saturday) and presented this to the minister which she said she would consult on and get back to us,’ South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) spokesperson Nomusa Cembi said on Sunday morning.

The Professional Educators’ Union (PEU) was also in the meeting and confirmed that their position remained the same.

‘We were part of the meeting, the position is the same – the sector is not ready.

‘The department has not delivered on its mandate.

‘In terms of the non-negotiables, they have not complied.’

SADTU said the Department of Basic Education’s timelines on the reopening of schools were always ‘unrealistic’.

Finally, on Sunday evening Minister Motshekga announced that the Education Department had decided that pupils would not return to school on 1st June, but would now return from 8th June.

SADTU secretariat officer Xolani Fakude said the union had always maintained that the system was ‘far from being ready’ to reopen on Monday.

He said the union was aware of what was happening on the ground, which was why they were against the return of pupils to schools.

The National Teachers Union (NATU) said it was concerned that the department had continued to pronounce dates, without ensuring that there were measures in place to have all non-negotiables implemented in schools.

‘The minister has been pronouncing dates and none of the dates have been properly observed by all the provinces, simply because she is making pronouncements without monitoring what is really being done by the provinces,’ NATU president Allen Thompson said.

Thompson said the union was not convinced that schools would be able be ready within five days.

He added that the department should be focusing on what was being done by provinces to ensure they were receiving PPE (personal protective equipment), water and sanitation, and that cleaning was underway.

‘She is pronouncing dates, without any effort to ensure those dates materialise. We are disappointed in what the minister is doing right now.’

The Educators Union of South Africa (EUSA) will ensure the courts rule on the way forward, as they are taking Motshekga to court to interdict the reopening of schools.

The back-and-forth confusion over whether to return to school or not will only demoralise pupils and teachers and create further anxiety among them, said the union.

Unions and various schools have stood up to Minister Motshekga, refusing to reopen schools despite her announcement last month insisting that academic activities would resume on Monday 1st June.

Education activist Hendrick Makaneta said: ‘The minister did not know which route to take as she was backed into a corner by parents, unions and governing bodies.’

Educators Union of South Africa Secretary Kabelo Mahlobogwane stated: ‘Schools should not be rushed to be opened.

‘PPE does not prevent the virus from spreading.

‘If you were to look at the schooling environment and interactions, the spread is bound to happen.

‘Scanners provided don’t detect the coronavirus but only check your temperature.

‘There have been numerous reports that some don’t work well and at one school the thermometer gave all teachers the same reading of 36 degrees Celsius.

‘In townships, pupils walk to school in groups and interact with more than 20 people.

‘When they get to school, they tell us to separate them, but after school, they walk back home in groups.

‘No one is telling them to observe social distancing or wear masks.

‘There is no way schools can be opened at this stage because that would be committing genocide.’

The National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (NEHAWU) on Saturday announced its support for the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union, Congress of South African Students, and other unions in rejecting Motshekga’s proposal.

As a health and education union, NEHAWU said it would not jeopardise the lives of workers and pupils due to the education department failing to adhere to regulations such as deep-cleaning and fumigating, procurement of PPE, establishing screening and proper testing facilities at the workplace and supplying water and sanitation.

NEHAWU supports its sister unions and allies in the struggle SADTU, Congress of South African Students (COSAS) and other trade unions are waging in rejecting the decision by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) to reopen schools on the 1st June 2020.

‘As NEHAWU, we hold a strong view that schools are not ready to reopen and to resume normal operations.

‘We firmly believe that the health and safety of our members, workers and learners in basic education is sacrosanct and that the department has an obligation to provide a safe learning and teaching environment.

‘On 19th May 2020, the department assured the nation that preconditions for the reopening of schools will be met with an emphasis of a conducive environment for teaching and learning whilst safeguarding the lives of workers and learners.

‘However, as things stand, we are not convinced that the department has fulfilled even the basic minimum requirements for the reopening of schools.’

Thousands of teachers suffering from underlying diseases are expected to apply for permission to teach from home.

Paul Colditz, CEO of the Federation of Governing Bodies of SA Schools, said a survey in which 514 schools participated indicated that 10% of teachers had comorbidities.

‘There is a lot of uncertainty around how to handle the issue of teachers with comorbidities,’ he said.

Provincial education departments have different plans in place on how to deal with this.

In Mpumalanga, teachers who don’t return to school because of underlying medical conditions will participate in radio lessons and dial-a-tutor programmes.

Their counterparts in the Western Cape who are granted a concession to work from home will film lessons that will be screened to pupils in classrooms.

While some provinces are finding creative ways to get teachers to teach off-campus, they are still awaiting clarity from the department of basic education on how to manage teachers with comorbidities.

So far, schools have only received a medical questionnaire drawn up by the department of health that a doctor has to complete confirming whether or not a teacher has a comorbidity.

According to the list, comorbidities will include cardiovascular, respiratory and kidney disease, cancer, poorly controlled type II diabetes, advanced HIV,  severe obesity and third trimester pregnancy.

The Western Cape’s superintendent-general of education, Brian Schreuder, estimated that 2,000 teachers had applied for the concession to teach from home.

He said that, while they are awaiting a directive from the basic education department, teachers with comorbidities are requested to apply for a concession through their principal.

‘This has to be accompanied by a full medical history report from their medical practitioner as well as a plan on how they propose working from home.

‘Teachers would have to submit lessons daily to the school that can be screened to pupils.

‘They must be prepared to take work and assignments from learners and mark them at home. These teachers will have a normal teaching workload.’

Thirty-two schools and 37 school staff members have been affected by the coronavirus in the Western Cape.