Pressure to close schools as the Covid-19 pandemic in South Africa gains momentum has been mounting, with the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of SA (Naptosa) joining the choir of voices demanding that schooling be halted.
Naptosa executive director Basil Manuel said the unions’ national standing committee (NSC) met on Tuesday evening ahead of a scheduled meeting with Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga on Wednesday – a meeting that was cancelled at the 11th hour “due to the minister’s consultations within the sector”.
“The leaders and representatives of teachers’ unions will be informed of the new date and time. Apologies for the inconvenience,” a curt message from the department read.
“Having considered all the available information, the NSC decided that Naptosa should call on the minister, as unfortunate as it will be, to close schools, as per the advice of the WHO [World Health Organisation], until the peak of the pandemic has passed. This is essential if we are to protect the physical and mental health of our teachers, education support personnel, learners and parents, who, it must be emphasised, are already taking acute strain, whilst, in [President Cyril Ramaphosa’s] words, we are now heading into ‘the storm,'” Manuel said.
On Tuesday, South Africa’s biggest teachers’ union, the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu), resolved that schools should close amid a peak in Covid-19 cases in South Africa. The union’s secretary general Mugwena Maluleke said its NEC resolved that schools close until the end of the peak. Maluleke said evidence on the ground showed there was no effective teaching and learning at schools during the current conditions.
Naptosa said it was not calling for the abandonment of the school year. “That would be as irresponsible as keeping schools open in the period lying ahead. We are calling for the closure coupled with a plan on how to take the school year to a close,” Manuel said.
“A period of closure should not be wasted. Naptosa wishes to offer its assistance to the minister, and the Department of Basic Education, to draft such a plan that will be ready for implementation once it is evident that a stage has been reached in the flattening of the Covid-19 infection curve. Specific attention should be given to the issue of assessments and the position of our matriculants, and other grades, for whom it will be essential to complete the academic year,” Manuel said.
He added that while the re-closure of schools will be disruptive, Naptosa was not prepared to compromise the “physical and mental health of our members, in particular, and whole communities, in general, under the current circumstances”.
There has been mixed reaction to unions’ calls on government to re-close schools.
While the DA has outwardly rejected calls by Sadtu for the closure of schools, the EFF and ANC have taken a different approach, with the former saying it was about time unions acted in the interests of society.
In a statement, the DA described the move as “nothing short of reckless”, and a deliberate attempt to disrupt the completion of the academic year.
“We urge parents and teachers to guard against this recklessness as most schools are going above and beyond to keep their children safe,” said DA MPs Nomsa Marchesi and Belinda Bozzoli in a joint statement.
The party said those advocating for the closure of schools fail to understand how damaging this would be for the academic progress of pupils, claiming it was the worst form of grandstanding which shows no consideration for the reality of millions of pupils.
“Many learners and teachers simply do not have access to the relevant internet or technological resources to make distance learning a success,” the two said.
They added millions of children would face “imminent hunger” because they depended on school feeding schemes for their daily meals.
The EFF has been against the reopening of schools from when discussions around the matter were still taking place. The party said the unions, just like the president on the resumption of the sale of alcohol products, have finally come to the party that sending children back to school was “committing them to mass murder”.
EFF spokesperson Vuyani Pambo said this was a great opportunity to use this period to build and refurbish schools to ensure no child in the country was forced to learn under a tree or attended classrooms in mud schools.
“Education is not just the classroom. One also needs to be in the right frame of mind, the right kind of environment, which means an enabling physical, psychological and emotional space to learn. But how is this possible in the face of death?
“They are being asked to close off the reality of death while learning, and even if they survive our children must live with the guilt of possibly infecting their parents, who might die.”
The ANC’s national spokesperson, Pule Mabe, told News24 the party understood Sadtu’s resolutions and concerns, along with similar sentiments which had been raised by the Congress of South African Students, an affiliate of the ANC.
He said the ANC hoped the Department of Basic Education would look into the apprehensions that had been raised.
Up to Cabinet
The department of basic education has hit back at Sadtu, who resolved schools should close amid a peak in Covid-19 cases, and said such a decision will only be made by the Cabinet.
According to a statement by the department, the Council of Education Ministers (CEM) said groups and individuals who were not empowered by law do not have the authority to close schools.
“The CEM has resolved to take legal action against all individuals and groups that continue to disrupt schooling,” the statement read.