Covid poses tough choices for teachers and parents

Principal Nomthandazo Zweni of Holy Cross Primary School.

The government has pushed back the reopening of schools by two weeks, but parents and teachers still harbour a lot of anxiety about the impact of Covid-19 on schooling.

Schools were due to open on Wednesday January 27, but following a second wave of infections, Department of Basic Education (DBE) Deputy Minister Reginah Mhaule announced last Friday that pupils at public and private schools would now only return on Monday February. School-management teams go back on Monday January 25 and teachers on Monday February 1.

“This is done to provide relief to the health system which is already struggling to cope with the current demands,” she said.

Principal Dawn Petersen, of Golden Grove Primary School in Rondebosch, feels the health, safety and wellbeing of staff, pupils and parents should be the priority when schools do reopen.

“Even though all the precautions have been and will continue to be taken at school, the school staff will continue to feel the fear because they may not know who is asymptomatic who may carry the virus unknowingly,” she said.

She suggested that the education department find a way for all pupils to have access to free data so they could work from home and avoid falling behind.

Principal Nomthandazo Zweni, of the Holy Cross Primary School in District Six, said they had been ready to reopen from January 27. “We as school staff still feel anxious, though we have to be ready to continue once the school does open,” she said.

She worries that parents fearful of Covid-19 might still keep their children home on February 15.

“The workload would be too much for the pupils when they eventually do return,” she said.

Staff were also a lot more cautious, she said, because they had heard about teachers who had died from Covid-19.

Principal Ian Smith, from Vine School in Lansdowne, said they would continue to take all necessary Covid-19 safety precautions.

“Since schools were allowed to reopen last year, our parents and staff have been grateful that we have been able to put in place more than the required health and safety protocols.”

Small classes made it easier to manage physical distancing, he added.

Vine School teacher Meggan Fray sanitising her pupils’ desks.

Parents have also expressed anxiety about letting their children return to school, with many feeling torn between keeping their children safe and not wanting to jeopardise their education.

Rafiqa Booley, of Salt River, thought about not letting her son return to school this year, but he is going into Grade 7 and she said it was important for him to finish the year. She had also been reassured, she said, by the steps her son’s school had taken to keep pupils safe.

“Last year Cecil Road Primary had quite a good system of how they worked with their pupils. They made their classes really small, between 12 – 15 pupils, which meant the class was halved for pupils to come to school on alternate days,” she said.

Shamiel Abbas, of Woodstock, has a daughter going into Grade 9 at Trafalgar High School and he is nervous about sending her back to school.

“Hopefully when the pupils do return, things may start to settle down with the virus,” he said.

He is worried about the new strain of Covid-19 which seems to be more transmissible and more of a threat to the youth. However, he said he trusted the school to do all that was necessary to keep its pupils safe.

Education MEC Debbie Schafer said that while there was no denying that Covid-19 was overloading hospitals, she doubted a two-week delay in reopening schools would do much good in the Western Cape.

“We would have preferred a differentiated approach, as not all provinces are affected the same or at the same time,” she said.

The South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU) welcomed the DBE’s decision for pupils to return on February 15 but it did not agree that management teams should have to return from January 25 and teachers from February 1. The union’s general secretary, Mugwena Maluleke, said they had not been consulted about that.

“We wonder what informed this decision because teachers are as vulnerable to the pandemic as the pupils, which shows the DBE has no regard for the lives of the workers who get infected and are overwhelming the hospitals,” he said.

Sadtu spokeswoman Numusa Cebi said they would prefer that teachers only returned on Monday February 8. Covid-19 cases should be in a decline for 14 consecutive days before it should be considered safe to reopen schools, she said.