#childsafety | We have to get our children back to school – and we w…

We must adjust to the ‘new normal’ of Covid-19 by making sure that we reopen our schools in a way that reduces the risk and ensures the safety of our learners and staff. We have followed top medical advice in supporting the decision to reopen schools safely in the Western Cape.

Since some children returned to school earlier this month, parents have expressed a lot of concern and fear. With more learners heading back to the classroom soon, many more parents are asking questions about their child’s safety.

I fully understand that parents are worried about the Covid-19 pandemic and how the reopening of schools might impact their child’s wellbeing. As a parent of a child who has also returned to school, I know that our number one priority is always the safety of our children.

As a provincial government, working in cooperation with the national Department of Basic Education, we have followed top medical advice in supporting the decision to reopen schools safely in this province.

The South African Paediatric Association has supported the staggered reopening of schools based on medical, stating: “Children biologically contain SARS-CoV-2 better than adults, are less likely to get sick if infected, have milder disease, are unlikely to die from Covid-19, and are probably less infectious than adults.”

Also expressing her support for the return to school is Professor Mignon McCulloch, head of paediatrics at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital, executive council member of the International Paediatric Nephrology Association, and president of the International Paediatric Transplant Association.

She said: “Considering that children are at lower risk of acquiring and transmitting SARS-CoV-2, as a group of paediatricians advocating on behalf of our patients, we are of the opinion that the benefits (educational, mental and psychological health, food security and safety) of getting most children back to school exceeds that of keeping them at home. Provided the precautions of face masks, hand-sanitising, environmental cleaning and physical distancing are adhered to, we support the staggered approach of getting children back to school. Where cases of infection do arise, these should be managed on a case-by-case basis. However, we respect the autonomy of well-informed parents and caregivers to decide what is in the best interests of their children.”

According to data provided by the Western Cape Department of Health, as of 5 June 2020, there had been a total of 1,787 cases of Covid-19 in people under the age of 20. This represents roughly 6% of all cases at the time.

The age groups can be broken down as follows:

  • Younger than 5 years old: 20%;
  • 5-9 years old: 18%;
  • 10-14 years old: 23%; and
  • 15-19 years old: 38%.

Since 22 May, a total of 557 teaching and non-teaching staff have tested positive at schools in the province. This total includes staff who tested positive without ever having come back to schools, as most teachers only returned on 25 May. The number of cases represents 1.5% of all staff members at schools.

A total of 134 learners have tested positive since schools returned on 1 June. This represents 0.1% of learners in the grades which are currently back at school (Grade 7, 12 and School of Skills year 4).

Whenever a staff member or learner who has been present at a school is confirmed as positive for Covid-19, the affected areas at the school will be decontaminated. Learners and staff members will not be present when the affected areas are decontaminated. The school will reopen once the certificate of decontamination is received from the service provider.

Internationally and in South Africa, there have been a very low number of child deaths as a result of Covid-19. In the Western Cape, almost all of the children who have died have also had very serious comorbidities.

Every single death in this province is a death too many, and I extend my sincere condolences to the families and loved ones who have lost children.

The data, however, does show that children are at a significantly lower risk than adults. In fact, those at highest risk are residents over the age of 55 and those with underlying health conditions such as diabetes and hypertension.

Keeping schools closed also has an extremely negative impact on the wellbeing of our learners.

Extended school closures do not affect all learners equally, owing to unequal access to home learning support and the internet. Learners in poorer communities are reliant on in-class teaching to receive their education, and the longer schools are closed, the more they are disadvantaged. The gap will only grow between those learners who cannot access education via digital alternatives at home (in our poorer communities in the main), and those who can and do.

In addition, children who rely on the national school nutrition programme lose access to this during extended school closures – negatively impacting their health.

Through emergency funding, the Western Cape department of education provided over 1.2 million meals during the lockdown period. This will continue to be sustained through the normal school feeding programme now that schools have reopened again.

The reality is that the virus is going to be with us for some time, possibly another year at least.

We must adjust to the “new normal” of Covid-19 by making sure that we reopen our schools in a way that reduces the risk and ensures the safety of our learners and staff.

It is for this reason that the Western Cape education department has spent R280-million on masks and cleaning materials thus far.

This includes:

  • four million masks (two per learner and staff member);
  • Over 7,000 non-contact digital thermometers; and
  • Millions of litres of hand sanitiser, liquid soap, disinfectant and bleach.

The department has also adopted clear guidelines for the management of cases at schools.

Whenever a staff member or learner who has been present at a school is confirmed as positive for Covid-19, the affected areas at the school will be decontaminated. Learners and staff members will not be present when the affected areas are decontaminated. The school will reopen once the certificate of decontamination is received from the service provider.

In terms of these guidelines:

  • Those who have been in close contact (e.g. handshake or hug) with a confirmed positive case (whether at school or outside school) are required to self-isolate for 14 days from their last contact with the individual;
  • Those not in close contact do not have to self-isolate. Those who are casual contacts must, however, be monitored for symptoms; and
  • If there has been a confirmed case of Covid-19, the school is required to contact the district for assistance in terms of decontamination.

The need to close a class, part of a school, or entire school will be assessed on a case by case basis, in line with the department of health guidelines. The decision to close a school is only taken by the HOD, and parents and staff will always be informed of cases in a school.

In addition to masks and good hygiene, every single person entering a school in the Western Cape will be screened. A dedicated screening app has been produced for this purpose.

Furthermore, learners and staff will undertake an orientation programme which includes:

  • Why and how to wear a mask;
  • Important hygiene procedures;
  • The screening process;
  • New classroom etiquette and behaviour;
  • New physical distancing measures;
  • Important contact information;
  • How to identify symptoms of Covid-19; and
  • What to do when someone has Covid-19.

Those learners who have comorbidities will be supported by the department for home-schooling, and parents will be required to collect the material from their schools.

We also want to appeal to the public for their understanding and cooperation in ensuring that no external people go onto school premises unless absolutely necessary. The virus spreads through people, so the more we can limit additional people on school premises, the better.

To all our teachers, support and admin staff, and parents: I thank you so much for everything you are doing to ensure our learners get the best education possible during this challenging time. You are all heroes. Your courage is needed for our young residents, who will look to you during this uncertain time for strength and guidance.

I also remind you that the most important thing we can all do during this pandemic is to follow the golden rules, which include:

  • Keep your hands clean, washing them regularly with soap and water (or use hand-sanitiser);
  • Keep your distance from other people (at least 1.5 metres);
  • Sneeze into a tissue or the corner of your arm;
  • Wear a clean cloth mask properly; and
  • Stay home if you are sick, and first call the hotline for advice on what to do next (021 928 4102). DM


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