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Infrastructure and inequality in the Eastern Cape will hamper any efforts by the department of education to save the school year.

Before attempting to rush through the curriculum for the remainder of the year, traumatised teachers and pupils must first spend time mentally preparing for learning in the midst of a global pandemic.

These were among the views of educational experts participating in The Herald and Nelson Mandela University Community Dialogue on Thursday.

The participants in the virtual session included education professor Jonathan Jansen, head of Equal Education in the province Athenkosi Sopitshi, NMU director for the school of community Dr Bruce Damons and The Herald 2019 Matric of the Year winner Sachin Naidoo.

The debate was facilitated by political lecturer and analyst Ongama Mtimka.

Education superintendent-general in the province  Themba Kojana  was adamant the department was ready to welcome teachers and pupils as he said buildings had been sanitised, personal protective equipment delivered at schools and psychologists appointed to provide support.

But Jansen said there were more than 3,000 schools in the province using pit toilets, 26 years into democracy.

He added he was not sure if the province and department could address those issues.

Jansen asked how the department of education planned to deliver necessary equipment to teachers and pupils when it had failed to eradicate pit toilets in the province.

“Systemically, the Eastern Cape is a disaster.

“It’s one of the most unequal provinces in SA.

“It’s a province politically mismanaged.

“Ask yourself why a school like Gelvan Park Primary wrote a letter from its school governing body telling pupils not to come back; they’re not ready.

“Gelvan Park Primary is not some school in Flagstaff or in deep rural Eastern Cape.

“Go to Katanga [Helenvale] and tell me they are ready to reopen.

“We must stop bullshitting each other and talk about the realities on the ground for our children.

“It’s year 26 of democracy and there are 3,000 schools using pit toilets [in the Eastern Cape].

“Don't talk to me about apartheid.

“How much brains must you have to fix pit toilets?

“You can’t fix pit toilets but you want to have 10 preconditions before coming back to school — give me a break,” Jansen said.

Painting a picture of the infrastructure challenges in rural Eastern Cape, Sopitshi said should one pupil be infected with the coronavirus in a school, that pupil would have to either walk or catch a taxi to the next town just to access a clinic.

Sopitshi said when debating whether schools were ready to open, it seemed like those pupils solely dependent on the system were not being taken into account.

“Black working-class children are the ones who will bear the brunt of an ineffective system,” she said.

“There are issues of infrastructure problems we’re not addressing.

“There are issues of quality of teaching, learning and sanitation which have plagued the Eastern Cape well before Covid-19,” she said.

Sopitshi asked what the point of giving pupils tablets with data was when the majority of the rural Eastern Cape had connectivity problems.

“When I’m in most parts of the rural areas I don’t have any connectivity. Has that been taken into account?” she asked.

Sopitshi said it was difficult to trust the government to ensure things would be addressed.

“There are schools that have been able to access e-learning. But in areas such as eQonce, those learners haven’t been able to catch up because we’re not talking about students whose parents can’t buy data or even have access to Wi-Fi,” she said.

She said Covid-19 had laid bare the inequalities in the Eastern Cape.

Damons said consensus in conversations with several stakeholders was that it could no longer be business as usual.

“Decisions around education can’t be placed on politicians.

“A one-size-fits-all approach won’t work.”

Damons said it was impossible to save the 2020 academic year.

“We should place people above systems.

“Schools are attached to the broader issues of society.

“We have to recognise the immense learning which was been taking place at grass roots level,” he said.

He questioned if teachers and principals had been given enough time to return to work.

“Even before Covid-19, we’ve been struggling with the quality of teaching and learning.

“I’m of the view that educators need to be given more time to prep,” he said.

Responding to the comments made, Kojana said the department had hired additional support to provide psychosocial support to staff and pupils.

He said schools had appointed additional staff to ensure social distancing.

“Schools have been cleaned. Schools are ready,” he said.

However, Kojana admitted there were some instances where infrastructure challenges were a problem.

He said in those cases, pupils would be relocated to  nearby schools.

“All our teachers have laptops with data and now we’re coming to pupils in rural areas. They will receive tablets with data for free.

“We’ve developed digital material on psychosocial support.

“There’s a plan. Principals are being orientated on Covid-19.

“In the Eastern Cape, we’ve employed people to provide additional support to help with social distancing.

“The majority of schools have been cleaned,” he said.

Senior education psychologist Lawrence Smither announced that the department had bought 47 laptops for psychologists and therapists to allow them to access a tele-help service to reach out to parents and pupils who were not integrated on the school system.

Kojana said it was not a fair statement to make that government in the province had not done anything.

He said mud schools were decreasing and that the department was taking advantage of funds made available to the province as a result of Covid-19 in addressing some of the backlogs.

Naidoo said it was important for those in the decision-making seats to ask pupils what they wanted.

“It’s important to ask what pupils want in this debate and voice the views of pupils.

“A lot of them want to go back to school, but this might be more about returning to some sort of normalcy as there is a lot of anxiety over the uncertainty right now.

“Clarity is needed,” Naidoo said.

Watch the recorded video of the dialogue at:

This article appeared in The Herlad (South Africa) of 5 June 2020
written by 
Nomazima Nkosi.

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