Covid-19: How bureaucracy can kill

A thoughtless instruction to my school from the provincial education department may have cost lives

| A Teacher

Usually bureaucracy is just annoying for those who are subjected to it. But sometimes, bureaucracy can kill, says the writer. Image: NIAID-RML (CC BY 2.0)

It was the last day of school of 2020. For months my colleagues and I had been taking measures to prevent getting ill with Covid. But on this day in December, all our efforts to keep the school safe went out the window. And, while I cannot prove it, I believe a deadly price was paid. The blame lies squarely with our provincial education department and its cold bureaucracy.

At the end of term, parents come to the school to collect their children’s reports. Usually this takes place over one day. But we have a large number of learners and a relatively small school building. So we decided to spread the report distribution over two days to be able to manage the crowds and still maintain some semblance of physical distancing.

But the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) insisted we do it in one day. Why? So that no school days would be lost by learners who didn’t come on one of the days. It was a ridiculous decision, made by people who tick boxes but who have no understanding of how our school, or most schools for that matter, works. Exams were finished; no learning was taking place anyway. Nothing would have been lost if we had spread the event over two days.

Instead, an unmanageably large crowd of parents arrived at the school on the last day. Physical distancing was impossible. Several of my colleagues found themselves in a confined space with a crowd of parents waiting to be assisted. This went on for several hours.

Over the next week or so at least four of my colleagues became ill with Covid. One spent several days in hospital. Family members became infected too. Two of my colleagues who became ill lost their mothers to Covid-19 within a few weeks, and another lost her husband. One colleague is still struggling to recover his health.

No-one will ever be able to prove that the chain of infections was set off on the day we distributed the reports. Too much time has passed and there is no possibility of doing a genetic analysis to map the spread of infections. But there is a great chance that the handing out of the reports was a super-spreading event. We also do not know how many parents became ill or to how many people they in turn transmitted the virus.

It could all have been avoided if the provincial education bureaucracy had acted with humility. On a daily basis this bureaucracy sucks the joy out of teaching with an inept, poorly thought through, top-down approach that leaves little room for schools to act with autonomy. But on this particular day, I strongly suspect their incompetence and arrogance were deadly.

Comment by Western Cape Education Department

We informed the WCED of the teacher’s allegations (without providing the name of the school). This is the response from spokesperson Bronagh Hammond (the emphasis is hers):

The WCED allowed schools to issue report cards on the Monday and Tuesday, and if necessary on the public holiday, which was the Wednesday.

The Head of Department wrote to schools on 1 December 2020 –

“Report cards must please be handed out on the last day of learner attendance. For the majority of schools, this would be on the 15th of December 2020. Due to the Temporary Revised Education Plans (TREPs) some learners may receive it on the 14 December – if that is their last day. We have lost valuable contact time this year, so we ask that schools continue to make use of everyday and prepare lessons and activities accordingly.”

That was the written instruction and further communication was sent via districts confirming that parents could collect on the Monday. Schools were to issue from Monday morning based on their Temporary Revised Education Plans – ie. If Grade 1, 3, 6 learners were there on the Monday, then they could collect then, and then Grade 2,4 and 5 on the Tuesday. However, it differed from school to school. Foundation phase report cards could be issued from the Monday as parents generally pick them up.

So it is not true that ONE day was allowed.

ALSO, it is the responsibility of the principal – as leader of his/her school – to manage the situation in line with covid protocols. Ie. If a school needed to stagger it into a third day, then they could – or with some schools, parents were to collect at different times. Many schools emailed report cards to avoid contact, or sent reports home with the older learners and allowed for only Foundation Phase parents to collect.

We received no complaints from any schools, parents or communities regarding any schools impacted by this. We cannot even verify the accuracy of such a statement made by this anonymous teacher – when we do not know the name of the school. The allegations are concerning – however, we cannot engage with the principal regarding the inaccuracy of the statement that only one day was allowed, or that the school did not – allegedly – ensure that covid-19 guidelines were followed.

GroundUp Editors’ comment

We prefer not to publish anonymous opinion pieces, especially ones that make serious allegations. But the education department has a strict policy that teachers and principals may not talk to the media.

Former South Peninsula principal Brian Isaacs, who by most reports ran an excellent school, but was very outspoken, was eventually dismissed by the department in controversial circumstances. Wesley Neumann, the principal of Heathfield, is being disciplined for opposing the return to schools during lockdown. Even when principals tell a happy story, as in our recent article about a school going the extra mile to feed its learners, it seems they are given a hard time by department officials for speaking to the media.

So we’re making an exception for teachers and principals. Unless the department changes its policy to allow them to speak to the media, we will publish their views anonymously, if we believe they have made a convincing case that is in the public interest to hear.

TOPICS:  Covid-19 Education Government

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