As learners across the globe are returning to classrooms, principals of rural and agricultural schools in South Africa are fearing that the pending reopening of schools might turn into a covid-19 death trap.
Not only aren’t teachers and learners equipped with personal protective equipment, but social distancing is also not an option in overcrowded classrooms. Principals are eager to hear from basic education minister Angie Motshekga who has, once again, postponed the announcement of final plans regarding a phased-in approach to resume learning in the country. The minister is now expected to address the nation on Monday.
Principals are also telling Food For Mzansi that their learners are already having a significant disadvantage compared to those in the cities. Most haven’t had the opportunity to catch-up or continue with online lessons during the prolonged lockdown because of limited connectivity.
“I, for one, am glad that I am not a president, or a minister of education,” says Gina Mans, the principal of Laerskool Merwewille in Merweville, a town in the Central Karoo, about 150km from Beaufort-West. “It is going to be difficult to come to a decision that will accommodate everybody.”
Laerskool Merweville has only three educators and 46 learners, many of whose parents are farm workers in the surrounding region. Mans says the school is ready to reopen as soon as government gives the green light, but that would require a great deal of assistance to procure face masks and alcohol-based hand sanitisers for everyone. A phased approach to reopening will also be very complicated in a rural, farming community like hers.
She says, “It can be done. But we would have to get some help from the government. It is going to be very difficult if they are going to phase it in from grades 12 to 7. Most parents have more than one child in school and they would have to send them to the hostel because they live on farms. So, it is going to have extra financial implications for parents.”
Mans adds that e-learning has also not been a feasible endeavour for her school. Most of the learners are from impoverished backgrounds. They cannot afford the internet connectivity or technology required to virtually attend classes. “Our school services very poor communities in Cape Town and in Merweville. Most of the kids don’t even have cell phones, so it is going to be very difficult.”
‘Dire’ situation in rural Limpopo
Mans’s sentiments are echoed by Hendrick Ramapuputha, the principal of ZZ2 Primary School in Mooketsi, Limpopo. He tells Food For Mzansi that conditions in his rural community are “dire”. They too do not have the technological means to catch up with missed academic work. As it stands, they struggle to keep children busy with school work as they simply do not have the resources to do so.
“Down here nothing is happening. We are worried because (the school) must be opened, but we are not ready,” Ramapuputha says. “I feel pity for our children, especially grade 12’s. Our teachers have also been relaxed. They are not doing anything with children. Even though they are at home, you will find that the teacher will not even have one cell phone number of a child in their classroom.”
He adds that the school is definitely not ready to reopen its doors during the pandemic. “Down here in the rural Limpopo nothing has been done when it comes to the preparation of schools. I don’t think there is a school that can fully say, ‘We are ready.’ We still have a long way to go.”
The South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) has reiterated that opening schools under level four lockdown could not be done safely. They say the decision to reopen schools is ill-prepared and have cautioned government against rushing teachers and learners back to school in the thick of the virus.
In a news release, SADTU spokesperson Nomusa Cembi says the pandemic has exposed the inequalities in the education system. “Whilst learners in quintile 4 and 5 schools have e-learning resources, the majority of learners do not have these resources.”
SADTU therefore calls for a baseline assessment to determine the different levels of competency of individual learners before teaching can resume.