LESS than two weeks after schools re-opened in South Africa, there have been growing calls to suspend schooling as many schools have recorded positive Covid-19 cases.
‘We have seen a rise in infections at a high speed in all provinces since the reopening of schools,’ said Kabelo Mahlobogwane, spokesperson for the Education Union of South Africa (EUSA).
EUSA also said it was concerned that the Department of Basic Education (DBE) had ignored warnings not to reopen schools until September 2020. The union’s argument for a September reopening borders on the notion that temperatures would have risen by September and that infections would decrease, as the virus is said to be less of a threat in warm conditions.
‘EUSA still firmly believes schools should reopen in September 2020 when the virus struggles against hot temperatures.’
The union said it estimates that more than 10,000 schools in the country were affected by Covid-19 infections. This is about 60% of all schools in the country. And the union said its fears were heightened by the cases that were ‘swept under the public carpet and manipulated figures’.
It questioned why schools, which have 11 million learners and more than 450,000 educators, were pushed to open when Parliament, with 400 people, cannot resume. EUSA said this was a sign of an unequal society and one that sought to put many children and teachers’ lives at risk.
The union further said pupils were unable to practice physical distancing on their way to school, during break and after school. Mahlobogwane said proof of this was the latest numbers of learners testing positive for the virus daily in schools around the country.
Mahlobogwane said: ‘Rural schools remain subjected to unhygienic conditions as there are no proper toilets and scarce water supplies for washing of hands, which is exacerbated by poor quality sanitisers from ‘‘comrades’’ who got the tenders.’
The union further said that the poor quality of personal protective equipment (PPE) was not sufficient and served no purpose in preventing infections.
The union was speaking as public sentiment around corruption in the procurement of PPE is growing. Many concerned parents and guardians have previously expressed concern that the pressure to reopen schools was exerted by people whose sole intention was to loot the schools’ Covid-19 relief funds.
EUSA has also called for investigations into funds allocated to South African schools. The union has written to the office of President Cyril Ramaphosa and the office of the Public Protector requesting an investigation of the school relief funds.
Mahlobogwane added: ‘Schools should immediately close down and resume in September 2020.’
The call for the closure of schools also comes as it emerged on 23 June 2020 that more than 180 pupils at the Makaula Senior Secondary School in Mount Frere in the Eastern Cape tested positive for Covid-19.
‘We were up front as Sadtu in the Eastern Cape that the department was not ready to open schools. We have come to a conclusion that measures in the schools are not adequate,’ said Chris Mdingi of the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu).
On 22 June, four Cape Town principals also wrote to the president asking for a review of the decision to open schools. The school principals pleaded with the government to reinstate the suspension of lessons.
While their letter received unanimous endorsement from followers on social media, the principals wrote: ‘We appeal to our comrades in government to review the decision to reopen schools.
‘We ask that schooling be suspended countrywide. We, as principals in the trenches, would love to meet with a Cabinet task team to discuss the suitability of a postponed reopening,’ stated the letter.
‘We are willing to meet with a DBE delegation to discuss a postponement of the external matric examinations and a trimming of the subject lesson content,’ the letter said.
The four principals are Isaac Arendse of Steenberg High, Noel Isaacs of Floreat Primary, V Hendricks of Athlone High and Wesley Neumann of Heathfield High. ‘We call on principals everywhere to speak out against the early reopening of schools.’
Another concern regarding the rate of positive cases in schools is that infected pupils might take the virus home where there might be older people with underlying health issues.
Also of great concern is that some schools were closing for the second time as a result of learners or teachers testing positive for Covid-19.
They added: ‘We are not health or scientific experts but we do have combined, years of experience of teaching and leading on the ground at school. These years of activism at the coalface should count as an important subjective trajectory of human life above a curriculum.
‘There is great concern about the contagious nature of the disease and how this will lead to more suffering of our people in broader society. The extra workload with regards to health screening, now foisted onto the teachers, is adding to the anxiety.’
In a statement on 20 June 2020, Sadtu in the Eastern Cape said it had noted several discrepancies within the Eastern Cape department of education, including:
- Late delivery of PPE, thereby compromising early starts to learning and teaching,
- Poor quality of PPE in most schools,
- No PPE for non-teaching staff and
- Dilapidated classrooms.
‘The increased rate of Covid-19 cases in our schools has led to cumulative closures of schools across the province. This spine-trembling experience has ignited high levels of anxiety,’ said Sadtu in the Eastern Cape.
Sadtu would not confirm if the discrepancies they said they noted in schools in the Eastern Cape could be a direct result of the positive Covid-19 cases surfacing in schools in the province.
Speaking to Daily Maverick on Tuesday, 23 June, department of Basic Education spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga said the infections, like those in the Eastern Cape, did not occur at the schools. Mhlanga said screening was performed daily at schools.
He said it was through daily screening that they were able to identify positive cases. He said if there was a rise in infections it was in communities, not in schools.
‘They are not infecting each other in schools. The problem is there in the shopping malls, at home, at work, in the taxis and buses. We need to solve the problem at its core, and solving the problem entails strict adherence to the lockdown regulations,’ said Mhlanga.
He said the temporary school closures were just part of managing Covid-19 within the education space.
The Eastern Cape has reportedly had to close 100 schools due to learners or teachers testing positive for Covid-19. School closures have also been recorded in several other provinces, including Gauteng.
The department of education would not say whether the school closures would affect the learning rhythm, especially considering that some schools have had to close a second time.
On 22 June 2020, several schools in Gauteng closed due to pupils testing positive for Covid-19. At least three schools in the West Rand had to close. Protea Glen Secondary also closed, while Hoerskool Die Adelaar was closing for the second time. The school will reopen on 24 June 2020.
The call to shut down schools came at a time when the number of positive Covid-19 cases in South Africa topped the 106,000 mark and deaths topped 2,100. Notably, there have been more than 50,000 recoveries.
COSATU statement on the first quarter unemployment figures
June 23, 2020
The Congress of South African Trade Unions has noted the latest quarterly employment statistics showing that unemployment rose by a percentage point from 29.1 to 30.1% in the first quarter of 2020. This is the first signal of the economic firestorm facing this country.
The latest unemployment figures are an initial snapshot of the devastating impacts of Covid-19 still on jobs and the economy. In comparison to last year, there are now 900,000 more people who have become jobless.
The total impacts on jobs by the pandemic is not yet accurately captured in the statistics because the majority of section 189 notices are in the Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), the full extent of the lockdown will become clearer when the labour statistics for the second quarter are released by STATS SA.
These first quarter numbers hide the reality of what is on the horizon. The federation believes that with the explosion of Covid-19 and the subsequent global and domestic lockdown, the situation is now far worse. We fear that unemployment will soon in fact approach 50% in the expanded definition.
Employers in both the private and public sectors have already begun mass retrenchments. Surveys have indicated that half of the employers receiving the Unemployment Insurance Fund Covid-19 Temporary Employer Relief (UIF Covid-19 TER are likely to retrench on average 20% of their workers. This is calamitous considering that youth unemployment is already at 41.7%.
This means that millions of families will be plunged deeper into poverty, and this will also erode the much-needed domestic demand trapping the economy in a vicious cycle. These figures have nothing to do with the outbreak of Covid-19 but can be attributed to the misguided macroeconomic policy framework that has been implemented over the years.
The policymakers have an opportunity to redeem themselves starting with tomorrow’s supplementary budget. Our rising unemployment rate is already at a catastrophic scale – which loudly calls for a paradigm shift away from the Neoliberal macroeconomic straitjacket.
This budget should herald a new dawn characterised by an alternative economic development strategy to get out of this economic quagmire. We need an economic framework of monetary and fiscal policies that places employment creation as a priority. This must include:
- Government abandoning its austerity measures and draconian cuts in the public service to stop the economy plunging into a deeper depression.
- A massive infrastructure spending and a stimulus package of more than R1 trillion.
- Encourage and compel local businesses to support the ‘Buy Local’ Campaign to increase local production and stimulate job creation.
- Give substantial support to key strategic economic sectors on condition that they retain jobs (manufacturing, retail, hospitality, tourism, entertainment, and transport) to help create jobs and rebuild the economy.
- Develop a labour-intensive green energy sector that will absorb jobs lost and become a key job creator for youths currently unemployed
- Impose tighter capital controls to maximise the resources available for productive domestic investment.
- Tax companies that are engaged in cash hoarding.
- Reduce the red-tape and improve co-ordination between government agencies and departments that are supposed to help SMEs.
- Help and incentivise small businesses to encourage new business development. An increase in the number of start-up businesses will help with unemployment and tax revenue.
- Improve access to affordable finance because mainstream banks and financial institutions have failed small businesses.
All indications are that we are in a deep hole and only decisive action from the government will save us from a jobs bloodbath. Whilst the UIF Covid-19 relief of more than R40 billion to help workers struggling was designed to avoid the scale of job losses we experienced in 2008, where a million jobs were lost, it is clear that this will not be enough.
More assistance must be given to help workers who have lost wages and jobs. And critically to help fragile economic sectors reeling from Covid-19. This support cannot only come from the UIF, but the government and the private sector need to contribute. The banks, investment funds, and the insurance industry must show meaningful solidarity. Their contributions to date have been very minimal.
COSATU wants to see all companies receiving relief from the government to be compelled to retain workers. All companies that retrench should not receive any assistance from the government. Any public stimulus funding must be conditional on job retention and incentivised for job creation.
We cannot bail out companies with public funds, only to see those same companies dump workers on the unemployment scrapheap.
Issued by COSATU
Sizwe Pamla (Cosatu National Spokesperson)