The Western Cape Education Department (WCED) have said that protests and disruptions school schools by organised groups and members of the community are posing as much of a risk to the health of children and teachers as their protests aim to avoid. 

Provincial Education Minister Debbie Shafer said in a statement on Monday 29 June that while she understands the concerns of the community for its children, the manner in which protests are unfolding is causing significant concern for the health and right to education of the children who have returned to school following the hiatus brought only the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Organisations not adhering to health protocols, putting students at risk 

Shafer said that the organised protests, which have seen members of Congress of South African Students (Cosas) and various community led interventions moving into schools and demanding that teachers and students return home as they say that they are in an unsafe environment. 

“These organisations claim to have the safety of teachers and learners at heart. However, it is their own actions that are putting our learners’ and teachers’ lives at risk,” she said. 

“Video evidence shows people entering schools, and organisations taking learners to the streets, not wearing their masks correctly, nor adhering to physical distancing.”

“In addition, they are denying learners of one of the most fundamental rights in our Constitution – the right to education.”

She said that while she can understand “the anxiety and concern” of teachers and parents, the communities must understand that her department is offering as vital a service as that of the Department of Health. 

“The decision has been taken at a national level that schools are open,” she said. “This is supported by all provinces.  The Minister has been quite clear that the decision was not taken lightly, and was done based on medical evidence and advice, which all supported the phased return to school, subject to the correct health protocols being in place.”

‘Students, teachers safer in schools than at home’ 

Shafer said that while the infection rate in schools was likely to mirror the rate being felt in communities, there is no evidence to support the theory that children and teachers in schools are in any greater jeopardy of contracting the virus, adding that over R450 million has been spent on sanitisers and cleaning products, with strict health guidelines being followed in some 1 500 schools across the province. 

“I have been informed that some parents feel their children are safer in school than out, because they are now adhering to these safety measures in schools – whereas out in the community, they are not,” she said. 

“At present in the Western Cape, less than 0.1% of learners in the grades meant to be back in class (Grade 7, 12 and School of Skills year 4) have tested positive. Staff members at schools who have tested positive account for 1.5% of school staff.’

She said that the vast majority of under 20s who have tested positive, as well as a number of teachers, did so during lockdown when schools were closed, and said that the concerning protest action seems to be isolated to the Western Cap, spite higher infection rates being recorded in other provinces. 

‘Reopening vital to ensure prosperity of children’ 

The core assertion that South African schools must reopen or risk failing students in pursuit of prosperous futures is key to Shafer’s concern that disruptions are hindering students more than assisting them. 

She said that a loss of education, even over a relatively short period of time, will put earning capabilities at risk for the students once they leave school, and the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) requires schools to be open in order to operate. 

“Our most vulnerable learners lose access to nutritional support on the School Nutrition Programme,” she said. 

“With so many parents losing their jobs, this is a vital lifeline to learners reliant on the programme.”

“Furthermore, parents who are not receiving government-guaranteed salaries need to be able to go to work and cannot leave their children at home alone when they should be able to go to school,” she said. “This is evidenced by the desperate call for ECD centres to re-open. It does not make sense to close schools but allow the re-opening of the economy.”

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Presh JM Reporter

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