'We're sworn to secrecy': talks on SA school closures for Covid-19 peak

Tholiwe Hlophe, left, and Skhumbuzo Mchunu - parents at Sobonakhona Secondary School at Umbumbulu in KwaZulu-Natal - disinfect a classroom.
Tholiwe Hlophe, left, and Skhumbuzo Mchunu - parents at Sobonakhona Secondary School at Umbumbulu in KwaZulu-Natal - disinfect a classroom.
Image: Sandile Ndlovu

While there is speculation that the government may close schools for two weeks, President Cyril Ramaphosa is expected to make an announcement on Thursday on the matter.

Basic education minister Angie Motshekga met with governing body associations, a principals’ association and other stakeholders at midday on Wednesday.

She will meet the five teacher unions on Wednesday night.

Paul Colditz, CEO of the Federation of Governing Bodies of SA Schools, who attended the meeting, said: “It was confidential [meeting] and we were requested not to share confidential information.”

Colditz said that cabinet will meet on Thursday and “will probably then make a final decision which will be announced by the president tomorrow”.

David de Korte, national president of the 3,000-strong South African Principals’ Association, who also attended the meeting, said they were sworn to secrecy.

“Unfortunately I can’t say anything.”

Some of the other organisations that attended the meeting included the Governing Body Foundation, Governors’ Alliance, the South African National Association for Specialised Education and the Deaf Education Principals Association.

According to an impeccable source, a presentation by a subcommittee of the heads of education department committee (Hedcom), which met on Tuesday, said that schools should be shut.

The source said representatives of districts on the district co-ordinating monitoring and support committee “were virtually begging the unions to make sure the schools are shut so that we can get our act together”.

“We are being forced to do things and we don’t have the capacity in the provinces. That was the general view of district representatives,” the source said.

Last Saturday the five unions submitted a list of resolutions to Motshekga, calling for the immediate closure of schools until after Covid-19 infections had peaked.

They requested that schools reopen at the end of next month but that matrics should return on August 17.

Meanwhile, the Professional Educators’ Union (PEU), representing 17,000 teachers, said in a communique before Wednesday night’s meeting that it had established that the unions were the last group of stakeholders to be consulted by Motshekga.

“The nation is quite divided on the issue of closing schools, with some SGB associations not in favour of the closure, backed up my many educational specialists and political commentators,” said PEU general secretary Ben Machipi.

He said the union understands that the minister and cabinet will find it difficult “to get to the middle ground” based on reasons advanced by various role players.

“But we remain optimistic that the current spike of Covid-19 infections and the advice from the WHO [World Health Organisation] on the reopening of schools will prevail over any other intention.”

Machipi said that as the leadership, “we will work round-the-clock to get the mandate [from members] of what next step is to be taken as soon as we get the announcement”.

Basil Manuel, executive director of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of SA, said their argument was being deliberately misrepresented in public “to create the impression that we want schools shut”.

“We are saying we want them closed during the peak and we are not talking about another holiday.”

Said Manuel: “I would like to believe that given the collective wisdom in cabinet that they would see the reasonable nature of this request.”

He said that closing schools would give Motshekga time “to ensure that the provinces get their act together”.

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