Unions give deadline for management teams to return to school a 'fail' mark

Basic education deputy minister Reginah Mhaule during a visit to schools in the Amajuba district in KwaZulu-Natal last year.
Basic education deputy minister Reginah Mhaule during a visit to schools in the Amajuba district in KwaZulu-Natal last year.
Image: Sandile Ndlovu

Teacher unions are outraged by the department of basic education’s decision to get school management teams (SMTs) and teachers to return to school weeks before pupils arrive.

On Friday, deputy basic education minister Makgabo Reginah Mhaule announced that schools, which were scheduled to reopen on January 27, will reopen on February 15 because of the increase in Covid-19 infections.

She said school management teams (SMTs) will have to report for duty on January 25 and teachers on February 1.

According to the original arrangement for the reopening on January 27, SMTs were due on January 20, a week before schools reopened, while teachers were due back two days prior.

Mhaule said she could not say whether the department will consider a further delay to the reopening of schools.

“When we get a report that things have changed in the country, you cannot say we open by hook or by crook. But if we are able to manage and stabilise infections, then we will be able to open the schools,” she said.

Basil Manuel, executive director of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of SA (Naptosa), said when they met the department on Wednesday, there was no talk of a staggered return to school for members of the SMTs and teachers.

“We accepted schools will be closed for SMTs and teachers as well until February 15, and we are completely baffled by the department’s decision.

“It is an unnecessary punitive action. Teachers have been impacted by the coronavirus and they should also return after the peak of the second wave.”

He said they will raise this issue during their next meeting with the department.

Earlier this week, chair of the ministerial advisory committee Prof Salim Abdool Karim said on radio his concern was that if schools were opened on January 27, “we are going to find quite a lot of teachers who will be positive and who may end up exposing other teachers and pupils”.

“Teachers are not contracting the virus from schools. They are acquiring it because we are in the middle of a wave in the community.”

SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) general secretary Mugwena Maluleke said they were not consulted about SMTs and teachers returning to school before pupils.

“We wonder what informed this decision because teachers are as vulnerable to the pandemic as pupils. This shows the department has no regard for the lives of the workers who are the ones who are infected and overwhelming the hospitals,” said Maluleke.

“The department thinks pupils are taught by robots. This obsession that teachers are hired to work and should therefore go to work when officials have been working from home for the whole of last year is unacceptable.”

Ben Machipi, general secretary of the Professional Educators' Union (PEU), said the rationale for asking teachers to return two weeks before pupils “defies logic”.

“It doesn’t make sense for teachers to report on February 1 while learners are only coming on February 15. We feel they are saying that teachers can’t sit at home and get paid.”

Mhaule because of the pressure experienced by the health system in the past few weeks as a result of increased Covid-19 infections, the council of education ministers (CEM) together with the national coronavirus command council and the cabinet had taken the decision to delay the reopening of both public and private schools by two weeks.

“This is done to provide relief to the health system which is already struggling to cope with the current demands. The new dates for the reopening of private schools will vary depending on the calendar they follow,” she said.

Elijah Mhlanga, spokesperson the basic education department, confirmed the chief director of national assessment and public exams, Rufus Poliah, is recovering after contracting Covid-19.

“There was no impact to the work he does because it is marking that’s taking place now. The colleagues in his sector have been continuing with the work. It’s not a one-man show. It’s a sector responsibility to ensure the work happens. He is ably assisted by colleagues.”

Mhaule, who chaired the briefing in the absence of minister Angie Motshekga, said the minister was recovering at home.

“She is fine. She is recovering at home and will be back next week.”