Late last night tributes poured in for Gregory Klink, 58, a Grade 7 teacher at Montevideo Primary School who died of the virus.
“The latest count we had (shows that) over 700 teachers who had tested positive since the time we started,” Western Cape Education MEC Debbie Schäfer told the National Council of Provinces this week.
“It’s an accumulative figure; obviously some of them would have recovered but we don’t keep those statistics. We have about 88 pupils, those who are back at school, who have tested positive but also they were not all necessarily infected at school.”
Many parents and teachers fear for their and their children’s well-being as the country’s Covid-19 infection rate continues to rise, and they are prepared for a nationwide boycott of the planned reopening of schools in two weeks.
A Cape Town-based Facebook group, #SaveOurChildren, has almost 50 000 supporters, most of whom are parents saying they’re terrified of sending their children back to school.
Four principals have also written an open letter to the government calling for the full closure of schools.
Isaac Arendse of Steenberg High School, Noel Isaacs of Floreat Primary School, Vincent Hendricks of Athlone High and Wesley Neumann of Heathfield High said reopening schools, even for Grade 12 pupils, was the wrong decision.
“We are not health or scientific experts, but we do have combined years of experience of teaching and leading on the ground at school,” they wrote.
“Our concern about our teachers’ and children’s health and safety is born out of great love for people and their basic needs. 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.”
They said reopening schools in winter would only fuel the spread of the virus given that the risk of flu and seasonal respiratory illness would also be higher.
“We ask that schooling be suspended countrywide. We as principals in the trenches would love to meet with a Cabinet task team to discuss the suitability of a postponed reopening.
“We are willing to discuss a postponement of the external matric examinations and a trimming of the subject lesson content.”
Teachers and parents this week protested and the Congress of South African Students also shut down schools in Khayelitsha which allegedly had positive cases.
Ruben Rhodes Titus, a principal from the Cape Winelands District, wrote a letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa.
“As from Friday, June 19, no less than two of my staff members tested positive for the virus and four others are waiting anxiously for the results of their tests.
“At my neighbouring school, the principal, his wife, daughter and four matric pupils tested positive. Teachers, non-teaching staff and learners are anxious, scared, uncertain and outright terrified to go back to school.
“A fair amount of my pupils are living in informal settlements and suffer great poverty. It is these children and their families that are most vulnerable and more or most likely to contract the virus.
“Please close the schools until we are sure that we have truly flattened the curve, and we are truly confident that it is relatively safe to open them again.”
Abdul Kariem Matthews, co-founder of #SaveOurChildren and a member of Bishop Lavis Action Community, said there would be mass action across the country if schools reopened on July 6.
“On that date, 13 million kids are expected back in the school system. Once those kids go back in the school system you can just imagine the rate of infection that will spread,” he said.
“Asymptomatic children can pass on the virus; they can bring it home to adults with comorbidities. The day they opened the schools and the teachers started dying, that is state-sanctioned murder.
“I simply cannot sleep. I’m waiting for the call that says my child is infected.”
Teacher unions remained sceptical about the state of readiness of schools across the country.
South African Democratic Teachers Union spokesperson Nomusa Cembi said it had done four surveys, three of which indicated that several schools did not have sufficient personal protective equipment and water for regular hand washing.
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said: “We have been burning the midnight oil with all education MECs. We are satisfied that the system is ready to restart amidst the new Covid-19 induced measures.”
But, National Teachers Union president Alan Thompson said most schools were ill-prepared as teachers were overburdened as colleagues with comorbidities or older than 60 had not returned to work.
“We are finding teachers teaching subjects they never taught (before), which is a major problem. The department has not given us a plan to integrate the pupils from the schools that did not reopen.
“So we have Grade 12 (pupils) that are three weeks behind schedule compared to those of other schools, but they expected them to write the same examination at the end of the year,” said Thompson.
Matakanya Matakanye, chairperson of the National Association of School Governing Bodies, said schools should find their own measures to practise social distancing.
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