Following the announcement of the dates for the start of the return of learners to schools by the Minister of Basic Education, the various reactions and questions posed serve to illustrate the complexity of the decisions to be taken and plans to be made.
We are facing an unprecedented challenge which could not have been anticipated, with no blueprint. There is much anxiety among all sectors of our population, which is understandable given the nature of the coronavirus.
Some people are also struggling to understand that on the one hand, they have been told to stay home and isolate themselves from society, yet now they are being told to go to schools, or send their children to school.
It is important, firstly, to understand the purpose of the lockdown, and that is to enable the health system to prepare to treat large numbers of people in order to prevent as many deaths as possible. The experts have told us that the virus cannot be stopped, only slowed down, and many people will be infected. That is not something we like to hear, but it is the unfortunate reality.
There are huge disadvantages of closing schools. Parents cannot work, children miss out on important parts of the curriculum which can affect the rest of their schooling and their future earning capacity, and the poor are affected the most.
As Professor Salim Abdool Karim said recently: “We are going to have to live with this virus. This virus is going to pose a threat continually, well into next year. So we have to find a way in which we can continue our normal lives. People go back to school, people go back to work, in a systematic way that reduces the risk.”
We cannot keep schools closed indefinitely. So as a responsible government, taking into account all the risks, and the best medical advice available, we have been making plans for the re-opening of schools. Some are still being finalised, and some may change as we learn more. But the following can be confirmed for now.
Preparation of school premises
In preparation for reopening, the WCED placed orders for school safety and hygiene packs, the contents of which will be received at schools by principals over the coming week. This includes two masks for every learner and staff member in all public schools, hand sanitiser and liquid soap, cleaning materials and non-contact digital thermometers.
Principals will also oversee the thorough cleaning of schools in preparation for school staff and learners to arrive. The cleaning materials being delivered to schools include bleach, which is recommended by both South African and international health authorities as the means to be used for disinfecting surfaces.
According to the NICD, the virus does not live longer than 72 hours on a surface, and is not airborne. Simply put, if there have been no people in the buildings, the virus cannot be there.
Learners and staff with comorbidities
An interim list of conditions that present a risk for staff and learners as ‘comorbidities’, such as hypertension, diabetes and TB, has been sent to schools. This list specifies in detail which conditions are regarded by health experts as high risk, and how they are measured. Principals and SMTs will be compiling confidential lists of learners and staff with these conditions.
Parents whose children have comorbidities will be offered the opportunity to oversee their children’s learning at home with the support of the Department over the next few months, or until restrictions are lifted. A letter will be sent to schools with a form for parents to sign indicating their intention to keep their child at home and to oversee their learning.
Staff with these conditions will need to provide a medical report on the nature and duration of the illness. Appropriate work arrangements and/or potential leave may then be considered.
Screening of staff and learners for Covid-19 symptoms
The issue of screening has caused concern amongst some staff members, who feel that they are not able to screen others because they are not health professionals. Screening is a simple process that involves asking an individual some basic questions as to whether they are experiencing any symptoms, and taking their temperature with a non-contact digital thermometer pointed at the forehead.
This requires no medical expertise – in fact, many of our residents will have already encountered ordinary shop, bank and workplace staff performing just this as Level 4 economic activity has expanded. Detailed guidelines on this process have been sent to schools.
In our view, the most practical solution is for staff at schools to undertake this task. This is going to have to be done every day with every child and staff member. If there is only one person to do this, it will take up much-needed time for teaching. In addition, if school staff do it, it minimises risks of additional people coming onto school premises. It is important that schools devise a method to implement this as quickly as possible, to minimise loss of teaching time.
As grades are due to return in phases, there will be ample space for classes to be spread out to maintain the required 1.5m between learners for the first grades returning. The difficulty arises when more grades return to school, and space becomes a problem. One of the key tasks of our returning Senior Management Teams is to develop plans to teach in a new way, whilst the appropriate physical distance is maintained.
Let us be clear: we have no intention of relaxing the physical distancing requirement at schools. When this maximum number is exceeded in the phased return, we are currently determining which option will be implemented – be it grades attending class on alternate days, uses of school halls as classrooms, or any of the many helpful proposals we have received from officials and the public alike. But we will not reduce or remove the physical distancing requirement.
There is no way that the curriculum in its original form could be “caught up” before the end of the year, without putting further pressure on our teachers, parents and children. So the DBE has trimmed the curriculum to ensure that the essential concepts required for progression to the next grade are taught.
This does not apply to matric, though, which will proceed as normal, with catch-up plans to be implemented. We do not plan to have “matric camps” in the Western Cape, as per some media reports.
For learners who rely on our learner transport scheme, we have been engaging with our service providers to ensure that they institute the appropriate sanitation measures. Detailed guidelines on these measures will be issued to providers and schools soon.
Those who are using public transport must follow the guidelines as set out in the regulations published by the Minister of Transport:
- Minibus taxis may only be 70% full (11 people including driver in a 16-seater minibus)
- Busses may only be 50% full
- Driver and marshals must wear a mask
- Hand sanitiser must be available for passengers
- The vehicle must be sanitised – especially handles, arm rests and handrails – before and after every trip
Dial *134*234# to report any public transport operators not following these regulations in the Western Cape. It is up to service providers to ensure that they act responsibly in the interests of the people of the Western Cape, and also members of the public to hold them accountable to do so.
These are some of the key issues that we are addressing. Schools were sent detailed lists of steps that need to be taken to prepare, and more will follow shortly, including how a school must deal with cases of Covid-19 in a school. We shall publish more detail regarding that once the document is finalised.
This is an extremely difficult time for all of us. We need cool heads and discipline in implementing these safety measures. And it will take a monumental team effort to make the changes that we need to make to deal with this pandemic.
I would like to thank the 95% of principals and 94% of cleaners who have reported for duty this week to start preparing our schools. Together we will get through this.