The department of basic education is two weeks away from phasing in other grades but teacher unions are still worried, given what transpired when some grades returned earlier this month.
According to gazetted regulations, Grades R, 1, 2, 3, 6, 10 and 11 are expected to return to school from 6 July, followed by Grades 4, 5, 8 and 9 on 3 August. Autistic pupils under the age of 13, as well as final-year students who are 18 and older will also return on 6 July.
But teacher unions say an assessment is needed because some schools, mostly in rural and disadvantaged areas, are still experiencing challenges they encountered when pupils in Grades 7 and 12 went back to school.
The unions say this is evident in the number of reported cases among pupils and teachers which led to school closures across the country for sanitising purposes.
The Eastern Cape education department was forced to close 196 schools after they reopened earlier this month.
Other schools are still faced with shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and water, among other shortages.
Opening doors for other pupils to come into such a system would result in more chaos, the unions said on Wednesday.
Basil Manuel, executive director of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of SA (Naptosa), said the union was not so worried about pupils’ return but questioned whether the schools would be ready.
Physical distancing already a challenge
“Picture the scenario, in primary school, five additional grades are going back. That’s a huge number because schools have battled to deal with Grade 7s, how are they going to deal with five new grades arriving on one day?
“If provincial departments have battled to deliver material for one grade in primary and high schools, how are they going to deliver for five additional grades in primary and two additional in high school?” Manuel asked.
He said the issue of physical distancing was already a challenge for current classes and would worsen once others returned.
Manuel said although they were concerned, they were seeking the advice of scientists.
Allen Thompson, the president of the National Teachers’ Union, said they were hoping that unions would meet with the department to assess whether schools were ready for the return of other grades. He said this would allow them to put forward their concerns following inspections on the ground that were conducted in the past weeks.
Thompson added that the spike in infections in the Eastern Cape was concerning and added that allowing more grades back in the system would be problematic for the province.
He said while some schools, mostly so-called former Model C schools, would be in a position to welcome more grades, it would not be possible for those in the townships and rural areas.
“We do not support the notion [of phasing in other grades]. We are weighing our options right now on what it is that would have to be done before the end of June to make sure we convince the department otherwise, or block the phasing in of grades because we do not have a response system as yet to say what [we should do] should there be an outbreak.
“[The] majority of affected schools are those in deep rural [areas]. It is only the former Model C schools where things are going according to the plan…
“It is unfortunate that the department is treating this as if it is business as usual. Maybe they will begin to take it seriously if there is a death reported.
“They are pretending as if everything is well and are expecting the schools to cope with whatever they have. We cannot pretend as if it is business as usual,” Thompson said.
Professional Educators’ Union president Johannes Motona said the department seemed to continue to prioritise saving the academic year instead of saving lives, deviating from its own standard operating procedures on safety.
He said oversight in the Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal proved that there was still a gap in terms of safety.
“We are disappointed by the attitude of the department. There is no other way other grades can open when the situation for the current grades is not 100%. They are now just creating chaos.
“We know there is no way we can afford having learners not going to school, but we believe in safety first. The situation in the Eastern Cape is chaotic…” Motona said.
The unions have conducted a survey to assess whether schools across the board are up to standard after opening on 8 June. The survey is expected to be released this week.
SA Teachers Union (SAOU) executive director Chris Klopper said the survey showed that most provinces still had sanitisation challenges.
He said it seemed that the provision of masks for the additional grades was not in place at this stage, which was concerning.
Klopper added that at other schools, parents insisted that their children should return soon. He said some schools were already deviating and bringing in more grades outside the regulated dates because parents insisted – and because they can do so.
“We think if schools can comply with safety measures and social distancing is maintained, we think it is feasible and can be done. But schools cannot afford to take any shortcuts with regards to safety measures, especially regarding personal hygiene,” Klopper said.
In a statement on Wednesday the department said it would continue monitoring safety precautions and working with schools as it prepared to phase in other grades. It warned the public against visiting premises, saying that it increased the risk of infections.