Teachers will be risking their lives going back to school amid pandemic
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By Nthabiseng Malusi
As stakeholders in the schooling system and a social partner of the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and the provincial education departments, caring for the safety and well-being of our members and all learners in the country, the National Teachers’ Union feels obliged to state its position on the opening of the 2021 school calendar academic year, particularly under level 3 lockdown.
Following the outbreak of Covid-19 in South Africa in early March 2020 and cases peaking during the week of July 5, over the past months a major surge in cases has been reported sweeping through the country.
In response, the National Coronavirus Command Council promptly locked in the country to level 3 to contain the spread of the virus.
Section 28(2) of the Constitution provides that the best interests of children are of paramount importance in every matter. However, we do not believe it to be in the best interest of children to return to schools when we know that uncertainty concerning their health and safety reigns.
Educators are there to teach, but cannot do so in the environment where they will be risking their lives.
Furthermore, article 16 of Convection No. 155 of the International Labour Organisation states that employers must ensure that, so far as is reasonably practicable, the workplaces, machinery, equipment, and work processes under their control are safe and without risk to health.
Ensuring health and safety in workplaces must be the highest priority as people return to work within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. Good occupational health and safety conditions and the protection of workers, members of their households and the public is essential.
In 2020, unions agreed with the Department of Basic Education (DBE) on a few “non-negotiables” to which the DBE had committed itself to meet to reduce the risk of school staff, educators and learners contracting Covid-9. Unfortunately, the DBE was unable to fulfil these conditions and requirements, thereby failing to fulfil its obligations to the people of South Africa in the following ways:
1. Many schools were not provided with the required personal protective equipment of the required quality and quantity for all the educators, learners and non-teaching staff for the duration of the academic year.
Judging by the number of educators and learners who have perished due to Covid-19-related deaths, it is possible that non-compliance with this requirement has contributed significantly to the rate of infections at the schools.
2. Many schools that needed to be provided with the necessary sanitation facilities such as toilets and water did not have them on a sustainable basis. In some cases, these facilities (toilets and water tanks) have since been withdrawn for non-payment on the part of the Department of Education.
In other cases, water was only delivered once, and then the tanks remained without water up to the end of 2020 academic year.
3. Many schools were not professionally disinfected and cleaned, as required, for the most part before and after the schools had reopened.
4. The promise to employ substitute and temporary educators (collective agreement No1 of 2020) remained outstanding up to the end of 2020, ostensibly due to financial constraints.
5. Social distancing was not achieved at many schools owing to huge infrastructural backlogs.
Nthabiseng Malusi is from the National Teachers’ Union.