Angie Motshekga’s hard line on pupils returning

Parents who want to keep their children at home until after the coronavirus has peaked face a stark choice: these pupils must either return to class or deregister from their school.

The government is headed for a large-scale clash with parents over the new date of  8 June for the reopening of schools. The botched reopening – initially set for Monday but abandoned by Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga the night before – was marred in the run-up by almost two weeks of clashes between Motshekga, school governing bodies and educators. Motshekga had adopted a hardline approach, insisting that children either returned to school in staggered groups from 1 June or deregister from their schools and register for home education. This meant that parents would have to apply for new places at schools for their children for 2021.  She then changed the reopening date to 8 June, saying that some schools did not even have water or personal protective equipment (PPE) yet, and that people who had been appointed to screen learners before school every day had not all arrived or been trained.

Oupa Lehulere, the director of the Johannesburg-based adult education and social movement centre Khanya College, has described the reopening of schools before the peak of the coronavirus pandemic as “nothing short of Trumpist and reckless”. Even with the highest rate of coronavirus infection in the world and more than 100 000 deaths, United States President Donald Trump opposes the lockdown in his country and continues to insist that the severity of Covid-19 has been exaggerated.

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The “Trumpist” decision by Motshekga to reopen schools “goes against every position of the minister of health and the medical advisory council scientists up to 10 May … We are used to the ANC’s anti-poor and anti-working class politics. But when an entire body of scientists capitulates to corporate greed and special lobby interests, it is now up to the working class to pick up the fallen baton of science, and to defend itself and the nation,” said Lehulere, adding that children should stay away from school.

When she first announced that schools would be reopening, Motshekga, and later President Cyril Ramaphosa, said that no child would be forced to go back if their parents or caregivers felt it was unsafe. But in the days that followed, many parents received letters saying that if their children did not return they must be deregistered from the school and registered for home education. 

Homeschooling not always viable

Home education requires resources that many families do not have and it has not been taken up widely. Only 100 000 children are homeschooled in South Africa and by the end of 2018, only 1 500 were officially registered with the Department of Basic Education. It requires a parent or tutor to fill in a long form detailing their qualifications and saying how the home-educated child will spend their days. Motshekga’s home-education unit is said to take several months to process applications, meaning it is not a viable option for parents who only wish their children to stay at home until the peak of the infections has passed.

Despite this, the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill proposes to compel all home-educating parents to register with the government or face up to six years in prison. This is an increase from the six-month jail term that unregistered homeschooling parents currently face. 

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Motshekga’s only alternative to plunging parents into this nightmare of red tape is to force children back to school during the height of the pandemic where she herself has said she cannot guarantee that children are safe from Covid-19. The government’s argument is that it has delayed the peak of the pandemic and that some deaths are inevitable. But parents will not willingly sacrifice their children to be part of “inevitable” death toll statistics when they could keep the children safer at home.

Schools have continued to educate many children throughout the lockdown, with teachers, parents and pupils forging strong co-operative relationships. Although online lessons, WhatsApp instructions on how to work through textbooks and mini assignments were mainly for the more privileged classes, poorer schools have had their teachers print worksheets and drop these off at their pupils’ homes.

Intractable position

Ivor Baatjes, director of the Centre for Integrated Post-School Education and Training at Nelson Mandela University, says parents should not have to choose between sending their children into a hazardous environment and deregistering them altogether.

“Most of the schools are not ready. Poor leadership, no creativity, no imagination and inaction are the order of the day. Yet many alternatives are available but considered too radical for our neoliberal and authoritarian government. It’s time for school governing bodies, principals, teachers and children to revolt and put the alternatives on the table. 

“No normal education in an abnormal society is applicable, as we used to say in the 1980s. What kind of education is possible when everyone in your school is a Covid-19 suspect? We cannot allow Ramatito et al [Ramaphosa and Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni] to pass the blame of death to innocent principals, teachers and children. Avoidable deaths can only be the responsibility of an inhumane government. Let’s use this opportunity to build a liberatory education system for our people. Sekunjalo, ke nako (it has come to this, it is time),” Baatjes said.

Children who are able to stay home could continue to do lessons set by their school at home, as they have been doing during the lockdown. This would keep everyone safer as those at home would not be exposed to the coronavirus and there would be fewer pupils in classrooms, allowing teachers to implement and maintain greater physical distancing.

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But Motshekga’s intractable position is that she will not allow pupils to continue “working from home”, according to the Department of Basic Education spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga. “The basic education system in the country has no provision for distance learning at basic education level. It is either the child is in school or go for HOME EDUCATION [sic],” said Mhlanga in an email. By 1 June, Motshekga emphasised this hardline position, saying parents “must go and familiarise themselves with the conditions of homeschooling and comply, because even then you have to apply, you just can’t keep your child at home, you have to apply and meet all the conditions that are required under homeschooling”. This clearly precludes child-headed households from choosing home education.

In response to why Motshekga had said no child would be forced to return to school if this was not to be the case, Mhlanga said: “We planned for absenteeism in the first few days of reopening of schools. People are afraid and we understand. The system allows for absenteeism from schools for a certain number of days.”

That number of days is only three. Then, parents need to provide a doctor’s certificate for more days off or face prosecution for keeping their children out of school. It is an inflexible position that will not succeed, given the strength of feelings parents have about protecting their children. 

The right to privacy

Parents and children who have existing illnesses that render them vulnerable to the coronavirus have been undermined by another decision made by Motshekga. The department’s official position is that all comorbidities of children or caregivers – where there is more than one medical condition present – have to be fully disclosed to schools in person.  Grandparent caregivers are a high-risk group based on their age alone. 

Again adopting a confusing position, the department did not make it clear initially who would decide whether children or their caregivers were at enough risk for the pupils to stay home from school. It was only on June 1 that Motshekga announced that permission would have to be given by principals for children who had comorbidities to stay at home. “You can’t keep your child at home to say I’m anxious and therefore we find ourselves having to support you. No,” Motshekga said. Some parents have told New Frame that schools have already asked them to prove their children’s health conditions with a doctor’s note. Others object to their constitutional right to privacy being trampled upon by being compelled to disclose the entire family’s diabetes, high blood pressure, HIV or TB status.

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But Motshekga does not seem to recognise that the right to privacy still exists during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“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 co-operation in this regard. We take into account the health conditions of parents and their children, especially parents who come into contact with their children on a daily basis. It is therefore important that parents declare such information so appropriate action can be taken to assist them,” said Mhlanga.

He said children will have to present themselves in person at school if they want to disclose any ailments relative to their ability to survive the coronavirus. When asked why it was necessary for children to do this and why their caregivers could not come instead, Mhlanga said, “There are forms to be filled in.” Only if children are actually ill on the day school opens should they “focus on their health and ask a parent, caregiver relative to liaise with the school”.

Unreasonable expectations

Motshekga has created the impression that if schools are sanitised prior to opening, and if children and teachers wear PPE, this will greatly reduce the chance of Covid-19 spreading in schools. Provincial education departments such as the Eastern Cape Department of Education sent out a circular on 22 May calling on unemployed youths to sign up for three-month contracts at schools to do “things like sanitisation of learners, ensuring social distancing and wearing of masks, etc”.

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These workers will be paid R2 500 a month and schools with more than 1 000 learners will get a maximum of four workers. Employing just four young people – and giving them the weighty responsibility of keeping buildings containing 1 000 pupils sanitised all day while also ensuring the pupils keep their masks on – does not fulfil this promise and is likely to anger parents further.

It was expected that schools would reopen during the pandemic, particularly for those children whose parents have to return to work and have nobody to care for them. But nobody could have foreseen that the government would reopen schools at the very time that coronavirus infections were increasing rapidly.

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