The Department of Basic Education said while the decision to reopen schools was not taken lightly, as it tries to save what is left of the academic year, it is not going to gamble with human lives.
During the virtual ministerial briefing of the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) on Thursday, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said they take their responsibility to manage public schooling very seriously, especially in the face of COVID-19.
“We understand the immediate threat that the COVID-19 pandemic poses to our teachers, learners and broader society,” Motshekga said.
She said the department aims to salvage the academic year but we will not reopen at all costs.
“Nothing is more supreme than human life. Our strategy is guided by the call of the President to protect both lives and livelihoods, of which public schooling plays a strategic role.
“It is now established that disruptions to instructional time in the classroom can have a severe impact on a child’s ability to learn at a later stage. It gets worse for the poor.”
Quoting United Nations' agencies, Motshekga said the longer marginalised children are out of school, the less likely they are to return.
“Earlier research had confirmed that children from the poorest households are already almost five times more likely to be out of primary school than those from rich families,” she said.
The Basic Education approach, the Minister said, is also guided by the fact institutions of learning are also centres of health, hygiene, and nutrition.
There have been reported COVID-19 cases across the country since schools partially opened for Grades 7 and 12 on 8 June and some have been forced to shutdown.
However, Motshekga said it was unlikely that the cases picked up at schools originated from DBE facilities in terms of the epidemiology of COVID-19.
However, she described the spike as “classic” community transmission cases.
“Our schools must prepare for the eventuality of community transmissions becoming the bushfires in our schools. It is not a matter of if, but when.”
She has also extended her condolences to all learners, teachers, and non-teaching staff who have succumbed the disease.
“Your loss cuts deep into our hearts, as we know that the battle is far from over.”
Meanwhile, the Minister said the pandemic will be fought as a collective.
“We agree with the Health Ministry that our schools are now the new frontier in a war against the COVID-19 pandemic. We should all consider the reopened schools as the epicentres of surveillance, screening, contact tracing, and testing of cases that otherwise would have fallen through the cracks.”
Motshekga said saving lives while protecting livelihoods is the department's only priority.
“It is a human right issue, a matter of social justice, which is the pillar of our Constitution.”
Meanwhile, the key message of hygiene still stands, including hand washing using soap, using alcohol-based sanitisers and social distancing methods.
The Minister said schools were also decontaminated before learners went back to class and are cleaned daily.
Provinces are now finalising management plans for the return of Grades R, 1, 2, 3, 6, 10 and 11 in July, while the other grades are expected to be back in class in August.
“We are satisfied that the system is ready to restart amidst the new COVID-19 induced measures,” Motshekha said.
However, she said no school can be reopened unless it meets the minimum COVID-19 standards and essential staff is being trained through the new orientation on the management and combating of the pandemic.
“These measures include cleaning and disinfection materials, provisioning of personal protective equipment (PPE), hand sanitisers with at least 70% alcohol, handwashing soaps, gloves, cloth masks and thermometers.”
The department has been providing emergency water tanks to schools with lack of water.
Meanwhile, food handlers have been trained and provided with the COVID-19 essentials, including masks, gloves and disposable aprons.
Also, learner transport facilities are encouraged to adhere to health guidelines.
Motshekga said her department is also providing mobile classrooms to deal with the social distancing measures to avoid overcrowding.
Whilts, additional substitute posts will also assist in filling in for staff who are absent due to illness, age and comorbidities.
“Comorbidities such as hypertension, diabetes and cardiac disease are the three most commonly associated with serious illness if one contracts COVID-19,” said Motshekga.
In the Free State, she said they have received 1 887 applications from teachers who have applied to work from home, 237 applications from Mpumalanga, while the Northern Cape has registered 1 495 teachers with comorbidities.
The Minister said they are also supporting learners at risk and non-teaching staff.
In terms of assessments, Grade 12 learners are expected to write the set examinations based on the entire curriculum. Other grades will be given a reworked curriculum and assessed on 80% thereof.
The May/June Exams for Grade 12s will be combined with the October/November Exams and rescheduled for November/December 2020.
“We have developed a master curriculum recovery plan and all provinces have established Curriculum Committees at all levels,” said Motshekga.
Nonetheless, plans are in place for all special schools to resume teaching and learning.
The Minister said the department is facing an onslaught of fake news intended to cause harm and create public panic.
She urged the school community not to panic when a positive case is identified and a school is closed.
“We will endeavour to communicate which of our schools have been affected, but we won’t release personal information which may put positive people at risk.”