By Sameer Naik, Karishma Dipa and Siyabonga Mkwanazi
Johannesburg – Teacher unions have hit out at the government following its decision to allow private schools to remain open.
On Thursday, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that public schools would “take a break” from July 27 until August 24, while private schools were given the go-ahead to remain open.
While unions such as the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) have come out in support of the one-month break for public schools following a spike in Covid-19 cases in the country, they expressed concern at the decision to allow private schools to remain open.
“This thing of perpetuating the inequalities has got to stop,” said Sadtu general-secretary Mugwena Maluleke.
“We have got to confront this so we are then able to have one education system in our country where, when everybody has got to close, we close and when we come back, we come back.”
This was echoed by the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of SA .
“One of the main issues we are concerned about is this differentiation with the private schools,” said executive director Basil Manuel.
“It just entrenches differences and it suggests private schools don’t have the issues that we have. We have one minister so why are we treating this group with kid gloves? It reinforces two things - the differences between private and public schools and that people with money continue to be treated like they are extra special. It’s a highly unfair decision and not one we would embrace.”
Manuel added, however, that they would not be challenging government’s decision.
“I don’t think people have a taste for it to be quite honest. It would make a hell of a lot of noise. What we need is an urgent meeting before they publish regulations to discuss our issues, otherwise when the regulations are published, we are going to have an even bigger job trying to undo some of the things.”
The Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools believes government hasn’t acted in the best interests of learners. “The decision to allow private schools to stay open deepens and entrenches inequality,” said chief executive Paul Colditz.
“The same applies to the public schools. The minority of public schools will continue with online and distance learning, so they won’t be affected. Those children who need it the most are the children that should have been at school now. So the decision does not make any sense to me.”
Dennis Bloem, the spokesperson for Cope, said the decision has split the education system into two, between private and public schools.
He said the advice of the World Health Organization did not distinguish which school system would be affected by Covid-19.
“If there is a decision of closing schools, it must apply to all schools.”
IFP national spokesperson Mkhuleko Hlengwa accused the government of making decisions based on politics instead of acting in the best interests of learners. “There was very glaring inequality and differential treatment of public and private schools in his announcement,” said Hlengwa.
But private schools believe they have every right to keep their doors open. “The term independent means they have the discretion to use and they are not bound by state policies,” said National Alliance of Independent School Associations (NAISA) secretary-general Ebrahim Ansur.
They made compelling submissions to the national Department of Education and provided the government with reasons to keep their doors open.
“If they feel like the circumstances in the specific environment is safe enough, they will remain open so that is the principle on which we have been negotiating and the department has accepted that.”
Ansur also believes that the decision to close public schools for up to a month is not based on scientific evidence and that there were other reasons affecting this decision.
“It could be for example, like the education minister and the department itself has admitted, that some of the outlying schools in particular are not ready in terms of water and sanitary facilities.”
He said while the government attributed the temporary public school closure to the country’s peak in Covid-19 infections, it was not this simplistic.
“Everyone is concerned about the peak but nobody knows when this peak is going to happen and it might take place in different regions at different times.”
Meanwhile, the Independent Schools' Association of Southern Africa insisted that they operate with an entirely different school calendar to that of public schools.
“Some independent schools follow more closely with the public schools calendar, others do not,” said executive director Lebogang Montjane. “The management of the calendar for independent schools would make it difficult for the government to rationally determine when they open or close.
“In our engagements with the government, it is clear that under extraordinary circumstances they are wanting that teaching and learning continue in schools, that they do not want to hamper the delivery of the curriculum as much as possible. They correctly want to implement a differentiated approach to regulating all schools during an international pandemic.”