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Teacher unions and Basic Education Department on a collision course over WHO’s Covid recommendation

Learners wearing facemasks at Klapmuts Primary School in Stellenbosch in the Western Cape. Picture: Henk Kruger African News Agency (ANA).

Learners wearing facemasks at Klapmuts Primary School in Stellenbosch in the Western Cape. Picture: Henk Kruger African News Agency (ANA).

Published Jan 23, 2021


Johannesburg - The fight to keep close to one million of SA’s school labour workforce away from the classroom continues today and teacher unions are taking their gloves off.

Teacher unions have accused the Department of Basic Education (DBE) of blatantly flouting a World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendation that in order for schools to reopen, a country must have observed a 14-day consecutive decline in Covid-19 infections.

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Teacher unions, Sadtu and Naptosa say this is not the case in SA and they will continue to oppose the decision by the DBE for School Management Teams (SMTs) to return to schools on January 25. The WHO on its website stresses it merely provides “guidelines” and it’s up to individual countries to conduct their own assessments and implement strategies which pave the way for the reopening of schools.

The unions, DBE and other education stakeholders are meeting today to discuss the matric marking, which has been concluded but the unions say they will definitely tackle the elephant in the room. The unions are the only stakeholders who disagree with the decision for SMTs to return to schools earlier with the Department of Basic Education (DBE), the school governing body association Fedsas, the Independent Schools’ Association of Southern Africa (Isasa), the National Department of Health and the College of Public Health Medicine Covid Task Team all agreeing schools are in fact the safer option for teachers and learners.

Public health specialist and head of the College of Public Health Medicine: Covid Task Team, Dr Nandi Siegfried, warned it’s important to not only look at Covid stats but more importantly to have measures in place to prevent the spread of the virus.

“What is key is that we have engineering rules, which is distancing and ventilation, administrative controls, not having all the learners at school at the same time and PPE masks, sanitisers. Just like schools did in 2020. We cannot have our children miss another year of schooling. I would imagine this should be a concern for all teachers,” she said.

Siegfried said while she knows the fear is very real, it doesn’t mean the measures in place are less effective.

“The data shows the second variant is more transmissible but only if you are exposed. I believe schools offer a more controlled environment and so many children rely on the feeding programmes at their schools. Also there is no data that shows teachers as a group are more vulnerable. I don’t disregard the fears but the harm to the children is more worrying,” said Siegfriend.

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But the unions say while they have accepted there’s no going back on the return date for learners on February 15, they will stay the course for SMTs and teachers not to return to schools on January 25 and February 1 respectively. Sadtu spokesperson Mugwena Maluleke said to date they have not been given the scientific data that DBE has used to pave the way for the reopening of schools.

“Research shows if you reduce the mobility of people, you reduce the risk of infection.This is about the lives of our teachers. They only see our teachers as employees and therefore you must clock in at work. We have had 2000 teacher deaths and I believe we need a second consultation. The DBE did not consult the unions properly and even the NCCC (National Covid Command Council) sent them back to consult with us,” said Maluleke.

Sadtu’s sentiments are echoed by Naptosa’s Basil Manuel who says one of his main concerns is that “high school learners are now contracting adult Covid”.

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“I can’t understand why close to a million teachers must return now. Are the lives of teachers worth less. Teachers travelling in taxis coming from who knows where and now they are at school. This is surely a super-spreader event waiting to happen. We have to remove the emotions. The science says now is not the time,” said Manuel.

DBE spokesperson, Elijah Mhlanga, denied the unions were left out of any decisions after the unions claimed they were not consulted about the exact return dates of SMTs, teachers and learners.

“Since October we meet unions every week without fail to discuss all matters. Covid is a public health matter which is handled by the Department of Health to whom medical experts report. The department uses advice from the Ministerial Advisory Committee who are a team of senior medical experts. The NCCC and Cabinet make decisions on the basis of the advice from the same team,” he said.

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Fedsas CEO Paul Colditz said although they too have not seen the scientific report that paves the way for the reopening of schools, they do support the decision of DBE.

“We disagree with the unions to delay the reopening of schools and the early return of teachers and SMTs. What we should also be focusing on is to assist the more than 3000 schools which do not have access to running water and ablution facilities. As long as teachers and learners stay at home, they will continue to socialise within their communities. We have a new strain that is affecting children more and I am also of the view that school is the safest place right now, he said. Colditz, however, called for greater transparency from the DBE saying they were very involved in the decision-making in 2020 but there has been no communication from the DBE to Fedsas in 2021.

Isasa executive director Lebogang Montjane said they have had a very different experience with the DBE and are in favour of the return of teachers and learners.

“We believe the DBE and we assume their decision is based on scientific evidence. We have no reason not to believe DBE. We do our own monitoring and we were lucky that we did not lose any teaching time in 2020. Right now the safest place is school. We are grateful to the DBE, they have really been very supportive,” said Montjane.

Matric results are expected to be released on February 22.

The Saturday Star