Western Cape to reopen schools today despite Motshekga’s ‘new date’

The Western Cape Education Department (WCED) says that schools in the province will be ready and open to welcome learners on Monday 1 June in accordance with national government’s original directive.

The notice, issued by the MEC for Education in the Western Cape, Debbie Schäfer, has added further complexities to an already-convoluted back to school plan. Despite Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga’s late-night turnaround, which effectively postponed the reopening of classrooms to Grade 7 and 12 learners to Monday 8 June, Schäfer argued that gazetted regulations, coupled with the Western Cape’s state of readiness, meant that schools in the province would open on Monday 1 June.

Back to school shambles

The lack of clarity and consecutive delays associated with Motshekga’s back to school plans has left teachers, pupils and parents in a quandary. The minister was initially due to clarify the school strategy in the eleventh hour on Sunday night but cancelled the media briefing at the last-minute and, instead, issued a statement via the department.

Motshekga, who has since rescheduled her media briefing to 11:00 on Monday, said that after consultations with the Council of Education Ministers (CEM) and several key stakeholders in the education sector, it was determined that the national state of readiness was behind track. Due to this delay, the department noted:

“The date on which Grade 7 and 12 learners have to report back to school is 8 June 2020.”

This swift turnaround comes after civil societies and organisations, including the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), threatened legal action against the department of basic education. Motshekga’s opponents argue that sending children back to school, amid the growing wave of coronavirus infections and the looming winter months, would be a public health disaster.

Western Cape schools open on Monday 1 June

Schäfer, however, argues that Western Cape schools were primed in line with government’s health and safety directives and should, therefore, be allowed to reopen to Grade 7 and 12 Pupils. In a statement issued on Sunday night, the WCED said:

“In accordance with the Gazette promulgated last week by Minister Motshekga, schools are to return on 1 June 2020.

We have been engaged in discussions at a national level over the weekend, and were awaiting the Minister’s announcement that was scheduled for 18h00 this evening.  Given that this has now been postponed until tomorrow, we can no longer allow our schools to hover in a state of uncertainty.

Following the national minister’s earlier announcements, we have pulled out all the stops as a province to ensure that we are ready for the arrival of learners tomorrow.

Principals and staff have worked tirelessly to get all the health and safety requirements in place.”

Schäfer detailed the province’s state of readiness, adding that R280 million had been used to procure personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning materials. This includes the provision of 2.4 million face masks, 7 000 non-contact digital thermometers, and millions of litres of hand sanitiser, liquid soap, disinfectant and bleach.

Health and safety concerns

Schäfer did, however, add that not all schools in the province would reopen on Monday 1 June, saying:

“There will also be some schools that do not receive learners tomorrow, either because they are not at a suitable state of readiness in terms of safety protocols, or they are closed for cleaning if there has been a confirmed case of Covid-19 at the school. These schools will communicate with their staff members and parents of learners in this regard.”

The WCED said that while it understood the anxieties and concerns associated with going back to school after a prolonged period of absence — and, amid a growing pandemic – the right to education could no longer be scuppered. Schäfer explained:

“Whilst we are aware of the many anxieties surrounding COVID-19, keeping schools closed indefinitely is not going to resolve them.

The South African Paediatric Association has come out in favour of the phased re-opening.  We are taking every precaution, but the longer schools remain closed, the poor will suffer the most. 

The disingenuous arguments by some that all schools should open simultaneously do not hold water. They argue that the poor will be left behind. Well, the reality is that the poor are being left behind now, as wealthier schools or parents have the means to continue online.”

The Western Cape is regarded as the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak in South Africa, accounting for 65% of all infections in the country. More than 500 Western Cape residents have lost their lives due to the virus.

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