Reopening of schools lacking in good faith

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Colin Gwinji, a Grade 12 learner, takes notes. Photo: Matthew Jordaan

The reaction of the various stakeholders in education to the reopening of schools on Monday 01 June leaves much to be desired and seems to be lacking in good faith.

Since the announcement of schools reopening, the reactions have been largely negative, contrarian and not solution-oriented. With schools closed more than two months ago, the department of education, in trying to salvage what is left of the 2020 academic year, saw it fit to opt for a phased-in reopening wherein grades 7 and 12 would be the first grades to return to school. 

The other grades would make a gradual return. For all intents and purposes, this seems like a reasonable and careful approach in the light of the imperative to maintain a healthy balance between health and safety concerns and the need for teaching and learning to take place.

In response to the initiative to reopen schools, teacher unions and school governing body associations have tried to foreground all the stumbling blocks to such a move. Both have questioned the state of readiness of schools citing the non-delivery of personal protective equipment (PPE), the lack of water and sanitation at some schools, lack of cleanliness etc. Some of “reasons” cited predate the outbreak of Covid-19. In KZN, the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) has boldly called on members not to return to school on Monday. 

Health and safety risks for both pupils and teachers were cited as reasons why schools could not and should not reopen. The unions and governing bodies justify their reluctance to return to school on the basis of a concern for the best interest of the children. In a joint statement they cited section 28(2) of the Constitution which provides that the best interest of children were paramount in every matter concerning children. “We do not believe it to be in the best interest of the children to return to schools when we know that uncertainty concerning their health and safety reigns,” their statement read.

It is well and good that both teachers and parent bodies are concerned about health and safety. It should also be borne in mind that the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic has catapulted the country and the globe into unfamiliar territory where lives and livelihoods matter in equal measure. The state cannot guarantee the health of citizens as this coronavirus thrives on the basic inclination of humans to interact. 

Complete avoidance of human contact is the only absolute guarantee against infection. Since this is almost impossible, a balance has to be struck between such lives and livelihoods. There needs to be a common understanding that children have to go back to schools at some stage and that teachers have to go back to work to earn their livelihoods.

It would be expected that the stakeholders in education would seek to bring to the table solution-inspired proposals to ensure that a semblance of normality is achieved. However, such an attitude has been woefully lacking from both teacher unions and parent associations. It would seem that these major stakeholders have abdicated the role of normalising the education situation to government. 

In a spectacular shifting of the goalposts, the unions further slide into a technical argument when they decry the fact that teachers have not been provided with the amended curriculum. They assert that “no teacher should be expected to work in the “dark” and no pupil should be taught inappropriate content.” It would seem the unions are looking for a blueprint before they can agree to their members going back to work. 

What they fail to realise is that the government does not possess a magic wand to wave away all the challenges brought to the fore by the outbreak of Covid-19. As the venerable Barney Mthombothi avers, “There is currently no international convention or protocol on how to deal with the disease or minimise its impact. All countries are feeling their way in the dark, each learning on the hop by observing the mistakes and blunders-and some minor successes – of those who have already gone or are going through the wringer.”

The argument gets convoluted when the unions delve into operational aspects of teaching by citing the lack of essential training on the amended curriculum as one of the reason for their reluctance to go back to work.     

In arguing for a uniform approach to the reopening of schools and rejection of a staggered one owing to lack of readiness of others, the unions and parent bodies bring politics into the interplay to cast doubt on the feasibility of reopening stating that, “no school must be left behind , especially not because of incompetence and tardiness. 

Given the historical injustices of the past, it is obvious which schools will be left behind should a staggered approach to schools reopening be followed. This we cannot allow no matter the justification.” In a sophist attempt to halt the scheduled reopening, the incompetence of the governing ANC is acknowledged whilst also trying to point a finger at the apartheid legacy for the current education shortcomings. It seems the unions and parent bodies are willing to throw everything in their arsenal to ensure schools do not reopen on Monday.

With such a compromise arrangement of having only two grades out of a total of 13 starting out in the gradual normalisation of schooling, it seems the only way the government can get particularly the unions to see reason, is the labour route. Just like every worker, teachers have to work to earn their keep. 

Currently, many workers find themselves in dire straits due to having received no salary since the beginning of the lockdown. One wonders what the reaction of the unions would be where teachers to have their salaries stopped or deducted. I guess this would not be well received and probably lead to them taking to the streets with no care in the world for social distancing.