KEF says it’s still unsafe for learners to return to schools

Parents picketing outside Bergville Primary in Bishop Lavis, Cape Town, calling for the boycott of the school's re-opening. Archive photo by Mzi Velapi

The KEF says that the Western Cape Education Department has no plan to deal with COVID-19 as the schools re-open while shifting responsibilities to schools.

The Khayelitsha Education Forum (KEF) says that the provincial Department of Education does not have plans in place to deal with the challenges faced by schools in the township and that children should only return to schools when it is safe to do so.

This comes after the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) went ahead and re-opened schools for Grades 7 and 12 as it had planned despite a late announcement by the Minister of Basic Education that the date for re-opening would be postponed to the 8th of June. According to the KEF, which is a portfolio of the Khayelitsha Development Forum, the problems faced by the township’s schools would become worse when the other grades go back to school.

Haido Mteto, the KEF’s General Secretary, says that it looks like there is no plan to deal with problems of big class sizes, the lack of adequate access to water, and the employment of school psychologists or social workers. He adds that there is no clear plan as to who will administer screening tests at the schools, nor a plan to bring in substitute teachers to allow for reduced class sizes as part of the re-opening of the schools following their 11-week closure.

“On average, class sizes in Khayelitsha schools have about 50 learners and now because of the coronavirus, learners have to practice social distancing and each class has to have 20 learners. This means each class has to be further divided into three classes. The schools have told us that they can do that for Grades 7 and 12 but when other grades start coming back then social distancing would not be possible,” said Mteto.

In an interview with Elitsha, the Western Cape Education MEC, Debbie Schäfer, said that they have asked schools to come up with their own plans on how to continue practising social distancing as they do not have money to build extra classes to accommodate learners. “At one of the schools I was at, they will have half a class a day and the other half will come the next day. We do not have the ability or the money to build extra classes that we need and we are not going to compromise on social distancing,” Schäfer said.

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On Monday, it was reported that some parents and members of the South African National Civic Organisation (SANCO) were shutting down schools because they deemed them unsafe for learners to go back to.

“The Western Cape Education Department expects the teachers who have not been trained to administer the screening at the entrance. It would be possible to do it for Grades 7 and 12 but what is not clear is who will take over when the other grades are back in school,” said Mteto, who is also the False Bay TVET campus manager.

Mteto says the WCED has no plan to deal with issues of inadequate access to water at the schools, even as learners are expected to wash their hands regularly to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. “The taps at the schools were not meant to deal with the virus and we don’t think our schools have enough taps for the learners to wash their hands often,” he said.

Responding to the issue of whether special consideration was given to schools in poor areas that have inadequate access to water and sanitation and big class sizes, the education MEC said that there are no more than four schools without adequate access to water in the province. “We attended to that and made sure that they do have water and the township schools got everything that every other school got,” she said.

On the issue of who is expected to conduct the screening tests at the schools, Schäfer said that they have asked schools to come up with their own plan.

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“There are teachers with comorbidities and some are older than 60 and that puts their lives at risk. So far, there have been five teachers in Khayelitsha who have died due to covid-19. It looks like there is no plan to bring in substitute teachers for the teachers who will contract the virus and be expected to self-isolate and for the teachers who are older than 60,” said Mteto.

Earlier this year, the Khayelitsha Education Forum led a protest to highlight the need for improved security at schools in the township. Archive Photo by Mzi Velapi

The Khayelitsha Health District is a coronavirus hotspot currently with 3,113 cases and 1,977 recoveries.

“The schools in our district do not have enough psychologists or social workers who will offer support to the schools that might deal with high numbers of infections. There is one psychologist or social worker for every 20 schools in our district,” said Mteto.

The education MEC said that they do not have an extra budget for substitute teachers but they will do what they can. She added that additional psychologists or social workers cannot be employed to deal with the mental health of learners.

The WCED said that it has spent R280-million on personal protective equipment and cleaning materials for the schools. “This includes: 2.4-million masks – 2 masks for each learner and WCED-employed staff member. We have also provided over 7,000 non-contact digital thermometers for the screening process that every learner and staff member must follow each day, and; millions of litres of hand sanitiser, liquid soap, disinfectant and bleach,” reads the statement from the department.

On Monday, parents in Bishop Lavis protested outside two schools in the area calling for the boycott of the opening of the schools.

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