The global Covid-19 pandemic has confronted us with numerous, daunting challenges that we have never encountered before.
School education has been at the forefront of responses to the pandemic.
The school sector has had to make hard life-and-death decisions about the health and safety of our school communities – our students, staff, and parents.
In mid-2020, after an initial period of complete lockdown, schools and school authorities in the Western Cape and other provinces were grappling with the question of the return of students and teachers to classrooms – do we return at all?
Parents, teachers and learners were confronted with uncertainty amid the risk of infection, illness and death.
They grappled with questions about when, how, and under which conditions they should resume teaching and learning in safe ways and whether they should go back to class.
These were dilemmas being faced all over the country and, indeed, the world.
Teachers and provincial education authorities agreed that we need to be guided by the best scientific advice.
Scientists though were themselves divided and uncertain about the wisdom of the reopening of schools or the efficacy of staggering teaching days, where only certain grades attended school on a particular day.
In this climate of concern and uncertainty, the national Department of Education instructed schools to be re-opened on June 1 and 8, 2020.
Heathfield High School consulted parents, teachers, students and the school governing body (SGB) about what they thought the best course of action would be.
The consultations with all the school stakeholders were extensive and participative.
Parents strongly voiced their concern about returning to school in school circumstances that could not guarantee the necessary health and sanitation conditions of students and teachers for a safe return, and also then risking infection back home.
After these consultations, the SGB recommended to parents to keep their children at home.
Teachers not at risk were at school and the few students who attended were kept at school.
Ensuring the health of learners and teachers emerged very strongly as the primary concern among the school community of Heathfield high.
In its objection to the unilateral instruction to return to school, Heathfield high was not alone.
Its stand was supported by more than 100 principals in Cape Town.
They were all signatories to a petition that took issue with the instruction to reopen schools.
The decision not to return to school on the designated date was a collective decision made by the school governing body.
Agreeing with the need to safeguard his learners and teachers, Mr Wesley Neumann, the school principal, adhered to this decision.
Mr Neumann was subsequently unfairly charged with misconduct for implementing the SGB’s collective decision not to open the school.
This perceived “challenge” to the authority of the WCED is what has, in fact, led to departmental disciplinary measures instituted against Mr Neumann.
In September 2020, he was charged by the WCED on 12 counts of alleged “insolent behaviour towards Brian Schreuder”, head of education at the time.
Mr Neumann is currently appearing at a WCED disciplinary committee.
We believe these charges and the ongoing and protracted disciplinary hearing are grossly unfair, unjust and selective.
They detract from efforts to create an environment at the school conducive to learning, teaching and administration.
In these uncertain and unprecedented times, the matter of school attendance should be resolved through collaborative and ongoing discussion and decision-making in the interest of the school’s learners.
Wesley Neumann should be applauded, not punished for his engagement with the school community about the safest way forward at that difficult time.
The fact that the disciplinary hearing has had no less than 16 sittings to date seems to indicate that the WCED is struggling to make the charges Mr Neumann faces stick.
In addition, the presiding officer of the hearing refused to have a teacher witness testify against the WCED.
A member of the Labour Relations Department of WCED visited this teacher at his home and claimed the WCED would offer him a post if he testified against Mr Neumann.
The teacher refused to do this, and this blatant act of bribery has been reported to the police.
We call on the WCED to drop these punitive, ill-considered and illegitimate charges against Mr Neumann.
We also call on all fellow academics to support this demand for the withdrawal of these unjust charges.
We are concerned about the negative impact this action has on the functioning of the school, the education of students, the morale of the teachers and the stress on the parent body.
As an educator who has a deep concern for the well-being of his students and teachers, Mr Neumann should be allowed to do what he does best.
That is, to lead a reputable school that recently celebrated 60 years of sterling work and produced many prominent members of our society.
Let us work together and debate, not discipline and punish.
Allan Zinn, Nelson Mandela University
Anthony Staak, ex-Cape Peninsula University of Technology
Asanda Benya, University of Cape Town
Aslam Fataar, Stellenbosch University
Azeem Badroodien, University of Cape Town
Charles Thomas, Cape Peninsula University of Technology
Crain Soudien, Human Sciences Research Council
Crystal Jannecke, Cornerstone Institute
Cecelia Jacobs, Stellenbosch University
Denise Zinn, Nelson Mandela University
Dhiru Gihwala, ex-Cape Peninsula University of Technology
Doria Daniels, Stellenbosch University
Faaiz Gierdien, Stellenbosch University
Felicity Titus, ex-Cape Peninsula University of Technology
Gonda Perez, ex-University of Cape Town
Grant Andrews, University of the Witwatersrand
Greg Hussey, ex-University of Cape Town
Indran Pathar, University of KwaZulu-Natal
Kenneth Salo, University of Illinois, USA
Leigh-Ann Naidoo, University of Cape Town
Lesley Le Grange, Stellenbosch University
Marian Jacobs, ex-University of Cape Town
Mark Marais, Cape Peninsula University of Technology
Matilda Smith, Nelson Mandela University
Maureen Robinson, Stellenbosch University
Merle McOmbring Hodges, ex-Cape Peninsula University of Technology
Najwa Norodien-Fataar, Cape University of Technology
Nazeem Edwards, Stellenbosch University
Nicole Wessels, Cape Peninsula University of Technology
Noel Daniels, Cornerstone Institute
Norman Jacobs, ex-Cape Peninsula University of Technology
Nuraan Davids, Stellenbosch University
Omar Esau, Stellenbosch University
Rafiq Omar, ex-University of the Western Cape
Ronelle Carolissen, Stellenbosch University
Ruchi Chaturvedi, University of Cape Town
Rudi Buys, Cornerstone Institute
Salim Valley, University of Johannesburg
Shafika Isaacs, University of Johannesburg
Sharon Prince, University of Cape Town
Shaun Viljoen, Stellenbosch University
Stephen Langtree, Cornerstone Institute
Usuf Chikte, ex-Stellenbosch University
Vuyokazi Nomlomo, University of Zululand
Wendy Staak, University of Western Cape
Yusef Waghid, Stellenbosch University
Yusuf Sayed, Cape Peninsula University of Technology