When did teachers become education's collateral damage?

Teachers across the country have been in revolt for some time, writes Jonathan Jansen
Teachers across the country have been in revolt for some time, writes Jonathan Jansen
Image: Unsplash

When the majority teachers’ union, a political ally of the ruling party, announces this week that schools should close until the peak in coronavirus infections subsides, the pressure is on. I seldom agree with the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu), but this time they are doing their job — and that is to protect their members from harm. It always struck me as strange that public debates centre on whether it is safe for children to go back to school, as if they are the only ones occupying the premises; nobody asks: “But is it safe for teachers?”

Teachers across the country have been in revolt for some time. Even as I write this column, protesting educators have blocked roads in parts of the Cape because they fear for their lives. The response of officials? How about this silly line from the Council of Education Ministers (CEM) a few days ago: “The government is extremely concerned about teachers, principals, non-teaching staff who use any platform to attack government for going back to work.”

Now forget for the moment the clumsy sentence structure of education ministers and process this: the democratic right of school staff to criticise government is being challenged. And for those who “disrupt schooling” there is the added threat of legal action. The other teachers’ union, the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa (Naptosa), was right to push back against any authoritarian tendencies: “We urge principals to continue standing their ground against department officials who attempt to bully them into painting a picture of ‘all is well’ so as to underplay the impact of positive cases on schools.”

Then this bizarre rider in the CEM statement of July 14: that by attacking government, these staff are “ostensibly creating an impression that they should be treated differently from the rest of the other public servants”. Well, maybe it is because teachers are paid so much less than “the other public servants” or is it because the deputy director for something or other does not have to teach multiple classes of children from hundreds of homes and live through every anxious moment of the school day wondering whether the invisible virus will enter their bodies in the toilet or the staffroom or the classroom or simply in that walk down the corridor? Yes, school staff need to be treated differently from the fat cats working in their offices or from home.

What do teachers see that officials do not? In other words, what does the situation look like “on the ground”, as South Africans like to put it? Teachers see their colleagues test positive and become ill. Those around an infected teacher are sent home to quarantine and worry about whether they might be infected. Teachers see more or less half the children show up for classes and know that the academic year is over with such uneven teaching, especially in disadvantaged schools. Teachers hear from other schools about a principal on a ventilator or a teacher who died.

I just received this note from a family member who is a teacher: “I am one of eight teachers in isolation. One colleague has tested positive and the four of us sharing a makeshift staff room are isolating as a result. Yesterday 20 staff members were absent, but the school decided to remain open.”

All these experiences impose huge emotional and psychological stress on their lives and no statistics about the lower probability of infections among children will ease their anxieties.

All of which raises the question: on what authority do the government and education bodies such as CEM stake their positions? This is the scary part. They work with the notion of acceptable losses. That is, in the calculations of the experts they like to cite, there will be children who get infected and there will be staff who test positive, fall ill and die. That, however, is much more tolerable than the hardship children will have to face by keeping schools closed. You heard right: acceptable losses.

Is that how we value the lives of our teachers (and other staff)? Should teachers be placed at high risk for the sake of the children’s continuing education? Is that the kind of trade-off that the profession is being forced to make? Will children get a good education if there are fewer teachers to teach them in the aftermath of the pandemic?

Let me be blunt. The department’s decision not to close schools is deeply disrespectful of teachers and constitutes a direct threat to their physical and emotional lives. If for no other reason, that is why schools should be closed until we have significantly flattened the curve with respect to coronavirus infections.

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