Teachers’ fears are real and they need a willing ear

The reopening of schools in South Africa is continuing apace amid the Covid-19 pandemic. With many teachers falling ill and some dying, support for them is crucial.

With schools steadily reopening to save what’s left of the academic year, teachers find themselves face to face with the Covid-19 pandemic that forced them to flee their classrooms in March. At the time of publication, at least 1 000 teachers had been infected with the coronavirus and the number was rising daily in a battle they never imagined having to fight.

After much wrangling between the government and teacher unions about the best way to resume classes, schools have staggered their reopening. They have also implemented measures such as the decontamination of classrooms for the sake of teachers’ and pupils’ safety.

Schools were first reopened for pupils in grades 7 and 12 on 8 June, following a week’s postponement. Pupils in pre-grade R and grades R, 1, 2, 3, 6, 10 and 11, as well as certain grades at alternative schooling institutions and those for pupils with learning difficulties, were scheduled to return to school on 6 July. But the Council of Education Ministers (CEM) has amended which grades will now return. “After careful consideration of all the reports, the CEM decided that only grades R, 6 and 11 will return to school on Monday 6 July,” the Department of Basic Education announced on Thursday 2 July. The changes apply to all provinces.

The South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) expressed concern in a media statement about the return of learners on 6 July. “We are extremely disappointed because we would have loved to see the schools building resilience in teachers, learners and education support personnel before receiving more grades. … It is taxing the teachers to deal with the curriculum recovery while at the same time having to deal with the probability of becoming infected.”

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Covid-19 is stalking classrooms. Zahraa McDonald, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) who has written on violence and teachers as well as student-teacher motivation, says that because of challenges inside and outside the classroom, teacher motivation in South Africa was “fragile even before Covid-19”. 

She says the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability of teachers, and the department needs to pay attention to their mental health. “The psychosocial care of teachers has not been given attention by the education department. Teachers need to feel listened to so they may be able to articulate their needs for support. That is then the support they need to receive.”

Before schools reopened, teachers expressed concern for their health, especially the elderly among them. “Teachers with underlying conditions and those above 60 have expressed more anxiety about returning to school,” said Nomusa Cembi, media officer for Sadtu.

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The matter of teachers who have comorbidities was taken to the Education Labour Relations Council, which led to the signing of a collective agreement on 30 May. “The agreement aims to provide a concession for educators who are affected due to the risk factors for severe Covid-19,” Cembi said.

During a school readiness media briefing on 5 July in preparation for the second cohort of learners, Department of Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said, “We wish to remind the nation that the basic education sector has about 400 000 state-employed teachers. Of these … 10 000 who have applied for concessions have been approved to work from home.”

Following the reopening of schools for grade 7 and 12 on 8 June, Motshekga noted that 2 740 teachers were infected with the virus.

Western Cape teachers bear the brunt

The Western Cape public education sector has been suffering particularly badly. Addressing the nation in June, President Cyril Ramaphosa said: “The Western Cape has so far been hardest hit by the disease, accounting for about 60% of infections across the country.”

Kerry Mauchline, spokesperson for Western Cape member of the executive committee for education Debbie Schäfer, confirms that the province has been taking strain. “Staff members, and all residents of the Western Cape, are understandably anxious given the high number of cases in the province as a whole.”

According to Mauchline, the provincial department has gone to great lengths to implement every possible safety measure at schools. This has included developing detailed safety protocols and providing cleaning materials, masks, soap, hand sanitisers and thermometers for screening pupils and staff.

Western Cape primary and high school principals expressed concern over the reopening of schools, writing on the Western Cape Teachers Forum’s Facebook page, “Our appeal is for the government to review its decision to reopen schools.”

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Principals from Steenberg High, Floreat Primary, Athlone High and Heathfield High wrote, “Our children and teachers are terrified of contracting the coronavirus. The anxiety around Covid-19 is palpable. School is about community. There is great concern about the contagious nature of the disease and how this will lead to more suffering of our people in broader society. The extra workload with regards to health screening, now foisted onto the teachers, is adding to the anxiety.”

Western Cape premier Alan Winde confirmed in late June that the province for the moment was the worst hit by the coronavirus outbreak and would “experience its peak soon”. He urged the elderly to take caution. “If you are over the age of 55 or you have an underlying illness, you are at higher risk of becoming seriously ill or dying,” Winde was quoted as saying on the BusinessTech news website.

Mauchline says the provincial department has 2 834 teachers aged 60 and older, and it has received about 2 000 applications for a concession to work from home. According to the collective agreement, “a concession in this instance refers to an employee with any condition which may place him or her at a higher risk of complications if they are infected with Covid-19, and employees aged 60 and above are at a higher risk of complications if they are infected with Covid-19.”

Alarming numbers before second phase

The numbers are changing rapidly, but at the time of writing, the number of infected staff in the Western Cape stood at 557, according to the basic education department. But a day earlier, the South African Broadcasting Corporation reported that more than 700 teachers had tested positive for Covid-19. These reported cases were from schools across all the quintiles, or school categories. There have also been reports of teachers succumbing to the coronavirus, including a 63-year-old grade 7 teacher who died from complications owing to Covid-19 on 26 June.

In Gauteng, the provincial education department on 10 June reported the death of two teachers, a 63-year-old female acting principal and a 58-year-old female teacher from Thuto-Lesedi Secondary School in Vosloorus, Ekurhuleni. In the Gauteng government’s weekly update on 25 June, the provincial command council noted that 188 teachers had tested positive. Under the status of comorbidities, it said: “Close to 1 000 applications received, across all Gauteng districts.”

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The Department of Basic Education said on 23 June that reopening schools meant more cases were being identified. “Since schools reopened three weeks ago under the Covid-19 environment, many cases have been picked up in schools as a direct result of the safety requirements that are being implemented. Motshekga said the cases being reported in schools show that many people already had the virus but they didn’t know it until they were screened and identified.”

The department failed to respond to questions, but its directions for reopening schools makes it clear that all schools must be fully functional by 3 August, when pupils in the last few grades are scheduled to return. But the Eastern Cape education department on 28 June requested not to proceed with the second phase on 6 July.

It said this was necessary to allow “the provincial Department of Education and the provincial Department of Health time to align its current plans to address the expected increase in infection within the province. Both provincial departments require additional time to allocate a healthcare professional to each school within the province.” The education department was in the process of “finalising plans to address the educators with comorbidities”, it said.

No alternative to reopening

The coronavirus will have dire consequences for the teaching fraternity in South Africa. The shortage of teachers in the country has long been an issue, as pointed out by academics Mncedisi Maphalala and Nhlanhla Mpofu on the Conversation Africa website.

“South Africa doesn’t graduate the adequate number of teachers to meet the supply and demand. Currently, the country’s initial teacher institutions graduate 15 000 new teachers per year. This is below the 25 000-mark required to maintain an effective teacher-pupil ratio. But between 18 000 and 22 000 teachers leave the profession every year. This figure is higher than teachers who join the profession,” they write.

Despite the bleak situation, McDonald says the reopening of schools is inevitable and necessary.

“Unfortunately, as low as teacher motivation is, and as much support it is that they need, losing an academic year is simply not feasible in South Africa. We cannot suspend schooling indefinitely. Next year a new cohort will need to enter grade 1. We know learners are being promoted in all grades because there is no capacity to keep them for an extra year. Where will we find the teaching and classroom capacity for the next cohort to start?”

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