The Safety of Learners, Educators and Workers is our Concern
The outbreak of COVID-19 caught our country on the backfoot. We are learning along the way as we seek to fight in the tunnel of rapidly shifting knowledge. The lockdown announced in early March has meant an extended stay-at-home for both our learners and educators. Our schools have stood empty for almost two months.
This has left our precious national assets exposed to the destructive lust of those who care nothing of the future of our children. These thugs have seen an opportunity to vandalize and trash our facilities and to destroy our children’s chances to learn and build skills needed to advance their dreams and secure their futures. It is against these challenges that the Department of Basic Education embarked on a consultative process with our stakeholders to find safe ways to reopen our schools.
The anticipated return to school provides among others ongoing safety and protection of our learning facilities. It also allows our children an opportunity to learn and it gives our dedicated educators a platform once again to pursue their calling; leading learners to new discoveries that create a longing for the possibilities of a new world of progress.
There is however great concern and uncertainty among many of our stakeholders. The safety of learners, educators and workers is a concern for many. The Minister and, the entire department share this concern. Minister Angie Motshekga’s concern is well known.
As a mother she takes these concerns very seriously and feels the responsibility to manage the reopening of schools with the utmost care to observe health and hygiene protocols and to do everything possible to minimize the risk of infection.
This is what she said in her statement delivered on the 19th May on the reopening of schools; “We are confident that the reopening of school across provinces will happen as outlined in the protocol that has been developed. The reports we got are showing that preparations have been taking place and good progress has been made. All indications are that the preconditions for the reopening of schools will be met obviously with the premium being on saving lives. The delivery of the COVID-19 Essentials are being done in all provinces to ensure that safe places.
The items regarded as essential are; sanitizers, masks, water and sanitation, and of course the schools will be cleaned and most are being cleaned as we speak. CEM agreed that provinces must move at the same pace to ensure that nobody is left behind. CEM emphasized the need to pay special attention to the health and safety of all learners, teachers and all employees in schools”.
The department has taken stringent measures in line with the Department of Health protocols to protect learners, educators and workers in our schools. The delivery of COVID-19 essentials have progressed well through the week. Many of our schools in far-flung districts have received these supplies and we have mobilized parents and other interested community members where possible to help with cleaning and fumigating of school premises as we ready the facilities to receive our children back.
We have held workshops and meetings with Principals to train them on the hygiene protocols. We are also engaging the services of a brigade of young adults who will be stationed at our different schools to manage the new protocols as the learners arrive and interact during break times. These young adults will be trained as community agents that will continue to promote the uptake of this new practice of washing hands, keeping social distance and refraining from hugging and close-bonding.
We are confident that we have put adequate measures in place to mitigate the risk of infection on our school premises. We have communicated these and our Principals and Educators are aware of the COVID-19 Protocols. All that is required is for each and every person to play their part in making sure that there is strict adherence to the health and safety measures.
One of the key areas of focus is in regard to the teachers and other employees in schools. The heads of education department in provinces should consider the higher risk COVID-19 poses to vulnerable employees, including those over age 60 and those with comorbidities. The decision must be made with due consideration of business continuity and the service delivery needs of the department. Vulnerable employees must submit relevant documentation in this regard as evidence to their human resource management components.
This means that all affected officials will be expected to submit a medical report with adequate relevant documents. This will have to be a fair process that ensures confidentiality and due sensitivity. The protocol for the declaration of comorbidities has been sent to schools. It is important for schools to resume in earnest tomorrow (Monday 1 June) in order to the system to establish the extent of the impact of COVID-19 on our teachers and learners alike. We will then put in place appropriate measures to support all those affected.
We also urge parents to work closely with schools to ensure that learners with comorbidities are also assisted. Schools will work with parents to obtain the information which once again needs to be treated with the utmost care.
This matter is of paramount importance and we appeal for cooperation in this regard. Minister Motshekga has mentioned Home Education as an option for parents who wish to keep their children at home and not return them to school. Should that be the choice parents and caregivers choose, then compliance with the Policy on Home Education will become necessary. I would advise parents to start by reading the policy first before making the decision because Home Education has its own implications which must be clearly understood and the first one is registration. All children in home education must be registered with the provincial education department.
For those returning to school from tomorrow please note that you will have to prepare for a life under a “new normal” where the following procedures must be followed at all times.
Protocols learners and teachers and workers
- Take the temperature reading of each leaner, educator and worker at arrival
- Avoiding gatherings;
- Maintaining a social distance of at least 1.5-2 metres to others, where possible;
- Every learner, staff member and visitor must wear a cloth mask at all times;
- Avoiding direct contact with others e.g. shaking hands or hugging;
- Frequently washing hands with water and soap;
- Avoiding touching the face (i.e. eyes, nose, mouth) with unwashed hands;
- Eradicating all forms of stigma and discrimination as a result of Covid-19: Refrain from teasing anyone about being sick;
- Learners to tell their teacher or parents, if they feel sick, and to stay at home.
- Not share cups, eating utensils, food or drinks with others;
- Sneeze or cough into a bent elbow or tissue, and to discard the tissue safely in a bin with a lid, then wash their hands immediately;
What to do if a Covid-19 case is confirmed
- If a learner or staff member is confirmed to have Covid-19, the school will be contacted by public health officials to identify those with whom the infected person has been in contact.
- Public health officials, with the assistance of the appropriate staff, will conduct a risk assessment and will provide recommendations on how the situation should be managed.
- In case a school is not contacted by public health officials, they have been provided with the appropriate provincial official to contact and can alternatively use the NICD toll-free emergency hotline to be referred to the correct person.
- In most cases, closure of the school will not be necessary, said. The decision to close will be school- and context-specific and DBE officials will make the decision.
The government is taking the threat of COVID-19 very seriously, Our Minister cares for the health and well-being of all our learners, educators and workers. Our partnerships are strong, our protocols are practical and easy to follow and our resolve to succeed against odds is unwavering.
The Minister closed her message with the following words: “I trust that we will continue to walk the journey together. We have only just begun, there is a lot of work to do still ahead of us”. Together we can beat the coronavirus!
Elijah Mhlanga is the Chief Director for Communications at the Department of Basic Education.