Reopen schools fully and safely

Image: Eugene Coetzee

It is time for a mind shift. The virus is here to stay. Lockdown is no longer an option. Infections due to variants will rise and fall and rise again.

Get used to it. Our focus should be on vaccination (boosters) and mitigation (for example, masks).

This would mean fewer hospitalisations and fewer deaths, until enough of us are vaccinated and protected to render the virus weak and ineffective.

This means that feverish media reporting fixated on the rise in infections is little more than fearmongering focused on the wrong statistics.

What does this mean for the reopening of schools at this stage of the pandemic?

I take scientists seriously. We have some of the world’s best vaccinologists and epidemiologists.

It is by listening to them, and eminent scientists around the world, that I became aware of the need for a radical shift in our thinking.

The problem is not what we see but how we see. Yes, virus infections have come at us in waves, pushing overall numbers since the start of the pandemic well beyond the undercounted three-million cases in SA.

That would have caused panic a year ago, except we now know that Omicron is much less serious in its effects on human health.

You are unlikely to end up in hospital and even less likely to die if you are vaccinated.

What does this mean for education as children return to schools in the inland provinces this week and the coastal provinces the next?

Quite simply, schools should reopen fully and the system of rotational attendance be discontinued.

Some of the mitigation measures that worked in March 2020, such as social distancing, are no longer relevant or feasible in January 2022.

Social distancing was always a bit of a joke in South African society for those who live in crowded shacks and those who attend  dysfunctional, overcrowded schools.

We need to do other things much better and more urgently than simply rehearse the well-worn strategies of 18 months ago.

Here are the critical preconditions for the full and safe reopening of schools.

One, ensure that all teachers, workers and pupils are fully vaccinated. Vaccinations are still the best available tool in the fight against Covid.

Two, insist that everyone on the school grounds wears a mask and does so properly.

Three, guarantee that there is enough PPE equipment at every school, including some of the most basic things like running water.

True, my thinking about reopening schools has changed since 2020 when the data was slim and we knew much less than what is available today.

We still do not have perfect knowledge and every new variant can change the calculus when it comes to the reopening of school and society.

The world of science works with probabilities of things like illness and death, not absolute certainties.

When a vaccinated person becomes infected, the anti-vaxxers and the conspiracy theorists have a field day, for those covidiots hold viruses and vaccines to exact behaviours regardless of the human condition, for example, persons with serious immune deficiencies.

To one such idiot who announced on social media that “both vaccinated and unvaccinated people get infected”, a cheeky response was this: “Both Serena Williams and I play tennis.” Enough said.

The real tragedy of reopening of schools is that the department of basic education has done absolutely nothing to prepare for the long-term future of learning under epidemic or pandemic conditions.

At the very least one would have expected a massive investment in technological infrastructures for all our schools so that when future lockdowns become necessary, everyone can move seamlessly from face-to-face to online learning as conditions dictate.

But for a government that cannot even protect its own house (parliament) or the highest judicial office in the land (Constitutional Court), why would they even care about a school in Lusikisiki or children in Lephalale?

The pandemic provided an opportunistic moment to radically revise the overloaded CAPS curriculum.

Except, officials in the basic education department decided to stay with the catch-up mentality of the pre-1990s when holiday and weekend camps force-fed missed-out content down the throats of desperate pupils. What a sorry state of affairs.

In the meantime, the most compelling reason to return children to schools without complex calendar manoeuvres is the reality of the loss of accumulated learning time since early 2020.

Children are now coming into Grade 3,  a Naptosa official said on radio this week, and they cannot even do basic operations.

We are staring down the abyss but can claw back some of those losses by opening schools fully and safely as a matter of urgency.



Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments? Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.