Ramaphosa on opening schools: Every effort being made to protect pupils

Amid confusion and concern surrounding the reopening of schools in South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa has reiterated that pupil safety remains government’s number one priority.

As the country enters Level 3 lockdown, uncertainty regarding the 2020 school calendar has been intensified following a last-minute turnaround by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga. Classrooms were originally ordered to open to Grade 7 and 12 learners on Monday 1 June.

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Mere hours before pupils were due to get kitted up for a return to class, Motshekga cancelled a media briefing and issued a statement announcing the postponement. Citing a lack of preparedness and concerns raised by several key stakeholders in the education sector, Motshekga revealed that pupils would only be allowed to return to school on 8 June.

The latest announcement follows a period of protracted ambiguity, with teachers, pupils and parents left in the lurch as a result of government’s miscommunication. While some South Africans have called for an immediate reopening of the education sector, civil societies and teachers unions have labelled Motshekga’s 1 June plan as premature and dangerous.

Ahead of Motshekga’s rescheduled address on Monday morning, President Ramaphosa, in his weekly letter, commented on the reopening of schools and the challenges faced by the Department of Basic Education.

Assessing schools’ state of readiness

With 1 June recognised as the International Day for Protection of Children, Ramaphosa thanked parents, grandparents and caregivers who — facing uncertainty as a result of the coronavirus-induced lockdown — had made sacrifices for the wellbeing the country’s youth.

Elaborating on challenges faced by the education sector, the president confirmed that concerns and objection had forced government to rethink its back to school timeline. Ramaphosa said:

“In the last few weeks, as we have prepared to return to school, we have had extensive and detailed discussions with all role-players in the education sphere. These have guided our approach to this complex and challenging task.

Now, in the last few days, several of these stakeholders – including teachers and parents – have expressed concern about the state of readiness in many schools. We have heard them, we welcome their contributions and are taking steps to address their concerns as well as proposals.”

Ramaphosa further acknowledged that the fierce debate surrounding the reopening of schools had divided public opinion.

Ramaphosa reassures parents

The president added that while nervousness was understandable, the right to education could not be undermined. Balancing education — in an attempt to rescue the 2020 school curriculum — with health and safety concerns, Ramaphosa confirmed that schools lacking personal protective equipment (PPE) and adequate hygiene standards, as prescribed by Motshekga, would not be allowed to reopen.

The president called on parents and community leaders to shoulder some of the responsibility associated with educating South Africa’s youth during a time of uncertainty. Explaining that collective cooperation and care would pave the way forward, Ramaphosa noted that government’s obligation to protect pupils would not falter, saying:

“Parents want reassurance that the necessary precautions should be in place to adequately protect learners. The safety of our youngest citizens from a health and physical perspective is not negotiable. It is our foremost priority.

Though we may feel anxious and fearful as our sons and daughters leave our care, we must draw courage from the fact that every effort is being made to protect them.”

While Minister Motshekga is scheduled to address the country at 11:00 on Monday 1 June, the Western Cape Education Department has decided to forge ahead with the initial timetable, announcing that schools which were prepared, in line with government directives, would welcome pupils before 8 June.



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