A meeting of the KwaZulu-Natal Education portfolio committee last Friday did not inspire confidence around the readiness of the province’s schools to welcome back some 367 000 learners next week in Grades 7 and 12.
Instead, the online meeting raised more concerns rather than the assurances sought from the province’s Department of Education. The committee was also an exercise in frustration, with Education Head of Department (HOD) Dr Enock Nzama and his officials’ non-committal over safety issues as well as firm timelines around these. To make matters worse, the HOD also tried to defend indefensible excessive spending on various safety and sanitisation items while hiding behind a Treasury document.
The biggest question right now for so many parents is – is it safe for my child to return to school? Regrettably, Friday’s meeting leaves the DA unable to respond with a resounding ‘yes’.
Right now, this is a question that only MEC Kwazi Mshengu and his HOD can answer. It is also one which they need to agree upon, while providing a unified leadership position whereupon they can be held accountable – a relationship which appears to be wanting. This after a disparity between the HOD’s responses following interrogation by KZN MPLs during the committee and the MEC’s televised presentation on Sunday.
While the HOD did confirm that schools would be ready to receive educators on 25 June, as we now know, teacher Union SADTU stopped this in its tracks with the result that educators are set to only return to work tomorrow.
The audacity of this Union to bring the Department to its knees, again re-affirms the position held by the DA that KZN’s DoE is led by the nose. As it stands, there is no further indication that there will be a disruption to resumption of duties, the possibility looms large though with another Union before the courts attempting to halt the opening of schools.
The entire back-to-school process has caused massive confusion and increased anxiety for both parents and learners. Given this mess, the DA has, this week embarked on a province-wide schools oversight programme to see for ourselves whether the environment is safe. With not all schools open yet, the DA has only a limited sample to assess. At this stage, our concerns are as follows;
• While many schools have received Personal Protective Equipment [PPE], soap and sanitizers with thermometers for screening also provided, the DA is not convinced that all schools have made provisions to immediately isolate anyone who is found to be unwell during the screening process
• We are also not convinced that all schools have adequate access to water and proper toilets or sanitation facilities. To date, there is no firm commitment from the DoE that schools without running water will all receive static water tanks and more importantly, that they will be regularly filled
• We are not at all persuaded that all schools have safe and proper access measures in place when it comes to entry and exit points. We can’t have just anyone waltzing onto the premises through porous fences without screening
• There is also insufficient clarity about ensuring safe physical distancing – both during learner transport and when all Grades are phased in and;
• While screening will be done by Community Health workers on loan from the Department of Health – with Department of Public Works Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) workers set to augment this role – the DA’s current findings in some areas indicate that there are not enough staff and no EPWP staff at present to perform this function. The question then becomes – will teachers be expected to do this?
The DA remains committed to the position that schooling must begin but only within a safe environment. The last thing we want is for learners, educators and staff to return to schools that will place them at risk of getting sick or carrying an infectious condition home – simply because the precautions that should be in place are not.
We will continue to visit KZN’s schools to confirm readiness for ourselves and will make known any issues we find which suggest that a school or schools should not open.