Fear as Covid-19 plagues learning and teaching

Teachers' unions in Zimbabwe say that the schools were not only closed due to the spread of Covid-19 but they were also on strike for better working conditions. Photo by Lilita Gwabe

The chilling deaths of three teachers from different schools in Khayelitsha due to the coronavirus and the general unsanitised schooling environment reported by the Khayelitsha District Forum contributed to a number of protests by community members and parents beginning on the 1st of June across the Western Cape.

The Bishop Lavis Action Community (BLAC) led a silent protest outside Bergville Primary School on Monday, the 1st of June. This took place after the Western Cape government held to Minister Angie Motshekga’s initial announcement for schools to reopen on this day, starting with exit-Grades 7 and 12 with a phased-in approach bringing the other grades back. BLAC called for a national stay-away from schools by teachers and children until the curve of the spread of the virus had flattened and the winter period of its peak had passed. “We are opposed to the opening of schools in the heart of winter during a pandemic… Our education system has failed our children with overcrowding, mud schools, lack of sanitation and a steady supply of water… the rest of the academic year should be used to solve these issues,” said BLAC Vice President, Beverly Fortuin.

Lindi Michaels has two children in Grades 1 and 7 and was not willing to send her child back while she believes that the school had not made adequate preparations for covid-19 and changed the classroom environment. “If I send her to school today, I will be sending her to her grave… There are 50 children in one classroom and there is only one Grade 7 class here – where is their protection?” she asked.

Parents and community members in Khayelitsha shared similar sentiments when learners were expected to return to schools that they believed had not been deep cleaned and remained open despite teachers testing positive. “Two of our teachers tested positive for covid-19; we are forced to go to work and told that the department will send people to fumigate the school. To me this is unfair; we cannot be forced to work in an unsafe environment,” said Alakhe July, one of the parents at Chuma Primary. As a result, on the 15th of June, parents marched to Chuma and many other schools in Khayelitsha, encouraging them to close immediately until all teachers and learners are provided with the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE).

Haido Mteto, the Secretary of the Khayelitsha District Forum said that during the lockdown, three teachers from different schools passed away due to the coronavirus and that in order for these numbers not to increase, Khayelitsha schools needed additional access to water and sanitiser, as well as deep cleaning of every school.

Khayelitsha parents and activists protested against the opening of the schools because “they were not safe”.

When we spoke to MEC Schäfer on the 3rd of June, she asserted that the Western Cape had taken all the necessary steps to ensure that every school in the province had the necessary PPE and running water to open in time. “Township schools have everything that every other school has got, and as far as spacing is concerned, many of our schools have issues with space…We’ve asked schools to come up with their own plan as to how they can keep that distance in place and still teach.” Schäfer said she was sad to hear about the deaths of teachers in Khayelitsha, “but it’s not that they got it from school so it’s a difficult balance to make sure we protect people, but they also need to get back into living some kind of normal life.”

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Learners at Nomsa Maphongwana Primary practising social distancing.

Athenkosi Sopitshi, the provincial head for Equal Education in the Eastern Cape, said that although the department had assured them that PPE like masks and sanitisers will be provided for learners, parents do not trust the department to provide these necessities to be fully protected: “I think the biggest concern is that if the government has struggled to fix basic things for a number of years, will they really be able to protect learners during covid-19? The education system in SA reflects the historical inequalities that continue to show themselves in the form of the lack of water and sanitation resources and poor infrastructure in mostly rural and township schools. The reality before covid-19 was not rosey… We were comfortable with learners taking 5km to get to school, seeing children walking in risky areas to get an education but that was our normal.”

Sopitshi referred to the untimely death of Lumka Mkhethwa, the five-year-old girl who drowned in a pit latrine at Luna Primary School in Bizana, Eastern Cape, as an example of the normalcy that existed before covid-19. “People are so eager to get back to normal, but what is normal?” she wanted to know.

Online learning under Covid-19

Although schools have reopened, the government has still made the option of online learning and home schooling available to parents. Unfortunately, the luxury of that option is not within reach for many learners from poor and working class communities.

Media Secretary of the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU), Nomusa Cembi, says that the survey they conducted with four other teacher unions showed that only 60% of schools were ready to open. This prompted their call on teachers to not go to work if they felt that the covid-19 regulations were not being complied with. “We had a meeting with the minister on the 30th where we indicated that the schools were not ready based on the survey we conducted. The minister promised to come back to us the following day; she didn’t come back to us and later on the Sunday we received media statements saying that learners are going back to school on the 8th.” Cembi added that even though other schools were ready to receive their learners, it would be unfair for those who are not ready due to poor infrastructure and a lack of resources to remain closed as this would further entrench inequalities between schools.

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With the help of a private company the Khayelitsha Development Forum demonstrated how to deep clean a school.

Maureen Made from Khayelitsha lives with her daughter and two grandchildren, one of which is in Grade 7. Made’s income was affected by the lockdown as a worker in the informal industry; she sells cooked food to the daily rush of people going to work. While at home she has been unable to assist her grandchild with online school work, “She couldn’t complete the work… because we don’t have laptops, tablets, no WiFi, no nothing…Unfortunately, companies that could help me were closed, libraries and internet café’s were closed. I couldn’t really help her with work because they sent PDF documents and I don’t have the app to open them.” Made adds that if the government could support parents with laptops or data for home schooling then things would be better.

Nomahlubi Dlula, the chairperson of the School Governing Body (SGB) at Nomsa Mapongwana Primary School, explained the creative ways they had used to adjust to online learning during the lockdown in order to avoid closing and continue with academics throughout: “On Fridays, there was a box by the gate for parents to submit their children’s schoolwork and a volunteering parent who’d make sure the submissions are made. We had an attendance register to make sure that learners from every class are submitting their work.” Dlula says that although the government assisted them with the basics, a lot of the needed additional PPE like face shields were organised through initiatives by the SGB.

Feature insert on the re-opening of the schools and online learning under covid-19. Produced by Workers’ World Media Productions

By the 23rd of June, 180 learners at the Makaula Senior Secondary School in Mount Frere in the Eastern Cape tested positive for coronavirus. On the 25th, the Western Cape Education MEC revealed during a virtual National Council of Provinces meeting that more than 700 teachers had tested positive for the virus since reopening.

Covid-19 Disinfect Now partnered with Khayelitsha Development Forum to launch a pilot community intervention to disinfect covid-19 hotspots in informal settlements in Khayelitsha, starting on the 25th of June with Yomelela Primary School located in the township’s hottest spot, Site B. Ndithini Tyhido, chairperson of the Khayelitsha Development Forum, spoke of the vulnerability to the virus experienced by people in informal settlements because of the dense, wall-to-wall living. Tyhido confirmed that no deep cleaning of schools had been done by the government in the Site B area and that their partnership with covid-19 Disinfect Now, was informed by their call for collaborative efforts between businesses and communities. “The department didn’t disinfect the schools; it is written in their protocols that there will be disinfections done but there is nothing written about how that is going to be managed and be done.”

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