Covid-19: School principals ask President to close schools

“Our children and teachers are terrified”

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A group of high school and primary school principals have asked President Cyril Ramaphosa to reconsider the decision to open schools on 1 June. Archive photo: Ashraf Hendricks

Principals, teachers, and parents plan to picket in Cape Town on Thursday against the “premature reopening of schools” which they say is compromising the safety of learners during the Covid-19 pandemic.

A group of high school and primary school principals wrote a letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa and all cabinet members a week ago, appealing to government to review its decision to reopen schools.

The letter, compiled by principals from Heathfield High School, Steenberg High, Floreat High and Athlone High, said “the decision to reopen primary and high schools on 1 June was the wrong one. We contend that the timing is bad as wintry weather brings with it seasonal illness such as influenza … suffering and death due to Covid-19 are rising.”

“As concerned principals, we are invoking constitutional, revolutionary and spiritual values in reaching out to you our country’s leaders … As principals who care, we have to consider and fight for the rights to life of human beings under our watch. Our children and teachers are terrified of contracting the coronavirus … Personal protective equipment such as masks are no guarantee against infection.”

“We ask that schooling be suspended countrywide … We are willing to meet with a Department of Basic Education delegation to discuss a postponement of the external matric examinations and a trimming of the subject lesson content,” said the principals.

Heathfield principal Wesley Neumann told GroundUp that Thursday’s pickets, in Athlone and in Retreat, would highlight the contents of the letter.

“We are not in favour of schools being opened while we have not reached the peak in terms of Covid-19 infections yet. More and more schools are closing, more and more learners are being infected, more and more educators are being infected in schools.”

“We just want the peak to pass, and once the peak has passed, we can then re-examine where we are at, whether it’s in September or October or in August, we can re-examine the school year. The picket is also a build-up to a meeting on Monday, where we will meet with 40 principals and we will collectively path a way forward,” said Neumann.

Neumann said that Heathfield High was fortunate at the moment as there had been no positive cases. “But all the schools around us have had positive cases in the last week. The virus is in our community,” he said.

According to Neumann, Heathfield has three support staff, who are general assistants (cleaners), two of whom are off because they are at risk, with comorbidities. “So we only have one on site everyday, and he is responsible for cleaning and sanitising, and it’s a massive task because it’s the admin block, all the classrooms, ablutions for both learners and educators and the walkways. It’s just impossible for one person to do all that.”

Spokesperson for the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) Bronagh Casey said: “While Covid-19 is a reality and creates a lot of fear and anxiety, we also have a duty to fulfill in education and to protect learners’ right to education.

“The national Minister of Basic Education, in consultation with the National Coronavirus Command Centre, announced that schools would open on 1 June 2020 for Grades 7 and 12, to be followed by the gradual phasing in of more grades on 6 July 2020 and 3 August 2020 respectively. The opening of schools in the province must be seen within this context.”

“There are over 1,400 schools operating every day in this province, where teaching and learning is taking place following the necessary safety precautions.”

“The WCED will always strive to protect every child in its care, similarly, every parent has the right to send his/her child to school to receive an education,” said Casey.

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