Teachers' mental health a concern ahead of school's reopening
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By Samkelo Mtshali, Sameer Naik and Norman Cloete
As thousands of educators gear up to return to their classrooms, teacher unions expressed concern for the mental health of the 65 909 teachers who will greeting the returning children on Monday morning.
Gauteng’s 2212 public schools will be in full swing next week and while teacher unions have agreed to the opening date of February 15, unions say the Department of Basic Education has not provided enough psychological support to educators.
Spokesperson for the Department of Basic Education, Elijah Mhlanga said the teachers have been in schools for two weeks now and school management teams are completing their third week at work and so far so good.
“We have monitored schools during this period and found that they have prepared for the return of learners.The situation is better this time around than last year when there were a lot of unknowns. In 2021 the teachers are using their experience of last year to deal with any challenge that may arise,” he said.
Spokesperson for the Gauteng Department of Education, Steve Mabona said: “We were given a green light by the unions, we hope all is well. However we can confirm that 39 educators applied to work from home because of co-morbidities and we are finalising approvals.”
But teacher union, Sadtu said not enough was done to prepare educators for what they may face on Monday.
"We are worried about the mental health of teachers and learners when they return because they will find that they have lost members due to Covid, obviously they will grieve," said Nomusa Cembi, spokesperson for Sadtu.
The mental well-being of teachers in a time of Covid has become an increasing concern not only in South Africa, but across the world. It has added to stress levels and a recent study in the UK found that the majority of teachers are complaining of overwork.
While some unions expressed mental health concerns, others questioned the material readiness of schools. The National Teachers Union (Natu) said schools in many rural and township areas in KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and Limpopo are not ready for the reopening of schools on Monday.
Much to the ire and dismay of unions, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) has been mum on the state of readiness and will only hold a media briefing to outline the state of readiness of schools at 3pm on Sunday, less than 24 hours before the start of this academic year.
Following a two-week delay from the initial reopening of schools to combat the spread of the second wave of the Covid-19, learners across the country are expected to finally make a return to the classroom on Monday to kick-start the academic year.
Cynthia Barnes, Natu General Secretary, said that schools lacked ablution facilities, personal protective equipment and mobile classes.
“In rural areas classes are small and often packed to the brink, with learners between 70 and 80 in numbers in a single small classroom and this is a serious concern as it will lead to the spread of Covid-19 like never before.
“In townships you find schools that have running water but now suddenly find themselves without running water and this affects feeding at schools as there is no water to cook for learners,” Barnes said.
She said the department had not addressed how it will counter the shortage of teachers.
“The department is not coming out with a plan detailing when they will release the bulletin to indicate how those teachers will be replaced while they have not even given out any communication indicating how many teachers each school has lost to Covid-19,” Barnes said.
Basil Manuel, Naptosa executive director, said the latest survey on schools in conjunction with other teacher unions indicated that a lot had improved with many principals saying that their schools are ready to open as they have the basic materials.
“However, there’s still a large group, almost 30% who are indicating that there are still issues. It doesn’t mean that they’re saying nothing is there, but they’re saying there are gaps, be it masks, be it sanitisers.
“In addition there’s issues of staffing, we know that a large number of teachers have passed away but besides that there are also teachers who are going off because of underlying illnesses,” Manuel said.
Naptosa has conducted a school readiness survey, in which schools were shown to be 70% prepared for the return of students.
“We have supported the opening of schools and the only caveat we have had is that schools need to be a safe environment,” said Manuel.
“Whilst we were unhappy that teachers had to return to school so early and way before students, it doesn’t mean that we were opposed to the reopening. Of course, there are things that are still worrying us.
“We did a survey which looked at the readiness of schools. We have just completed our second survey now and the preliminary results indicates there has been a marked improvement from January 18 to now. However it doesn't show an all clear.”
“30 percent is a huge number on the other side. And to be fair, those schools that are still short of things don't indicate they have nothing. They have much of what is required, but there are gaps. The gaps are with things such as masks for children.”
“Schools in the Eastern Cape and North West in particular have been told to buy masks out of their norms and standards allocation. The principles have been throwing their hands up in despair.”
“When basics like sanitisers and masks are not met it becomes a crisis.”
“What I'm really ticked off about is that we know all these things , why must the department be told that these things must happen,” said Manuel.
DBE announced that 4 000 new teacher assistants have been added to bolster teacher numbers.