By NASI HAKO
Committed staff at Makhanda’s independent and fee-paying public schools have gone to extraordinary lengths to prepare their schools for the return of learners from this week.
The schools surveyed by Grocott’s last week reported that the necessary protocols and equipment were in place for the safe return of learners, following months of online learning and weeks of intensive planning.
In stark contrast, no personal protective equipment (cloth masks) for learners were available at four public schools on Monday 1 June when a delegation led by Makana Mayor Mzukisi Mpahlwa visited them.
“No PPE for support staff and learners has been delivered. Unless the outstanding PPE is delivered, l don’t see how the schools can open,” Mpahlwa said.
Oatlands Primary principal, Alison Dugmore, laments the huge divide between the preparedness of Eastern Cape schools: “How can you expect schools with no water to be fixed in three weeks? This should have been done a long time ago.”
According to Equal Education, over 1 500 of the province’s schools still rely on pit latrines and 1 855 don’t have water, let alone soap, hand sanitiser and PPE.
Numerous participants in a webinar titled Back to school: Can the school year be saved? hosted by The Herald on Thursday argued that schools, even those with PPE, had not been given enough time to prepare. Outspoken panellist, Professor Jonathan Jansen, said that the years of education mismanagement had created obscene disparities which will be worsened by Covid-19.
However, Makhanda’s independent and fee-paying public schools reported they were more than ready to resume their academic programmes this week, and that they were supported by the overwhelming majority of teachers, parents and learners.
Learners (and parents) welcome the return to school
Jannie de Villiers, principal, DSG: “The girls can’t wait to get back and see their friends,” says De Villiers. “We’ve made a huge effort to communicate with parents all the way through. We monitored how they were doing and helped them understand the policies – risk-averse parents have found much comfort in communication. Families have got different reasons as to why they are cautious. We have made sure that we comply with everything and let the parents decide what works for them.”
Alison Dugmore, principal, Oatlands Primary: “From what I can gather, our parents can’t wait – they think it’s time for the children to go back to school. Only one has expressed concern.”
What gives schools confidence?
Kevin Watson, principal, Graeme College: “Strict measures in place when arriving on campus. The correct protocols are adhered to and we feel that as far as the school is concerned we are very able to protect our learners while providing them with an excellent education.”
Alan Thompson, principal, St Andrew’s College: “We have worked extremely hard to ensure that our standards are referenced against the best in the world, and we have taken every piece of medical advice possible. That said, this is not a zero-risk undertaking and we need to work with our families to ensure that we are constantly reviewing and refining our processes. Our online offering has been a positive experience, so I am happy that our boys are well prepared for the resumption of physical lessons. We have lost no teaching time.”
Jannie de Villiers, DSG: “It’s a great comfort to know that we can work online, but, sadly, it’s not a reality for everybody. There is a great opportunity for learning differently and breaking out of the mould.”
Colleen Vassiliou, principal, Kingswood College: “Protocols have been put in place, but we also draw confidence from the fact families have been given the option of whether or not to return their children.”
Joubert Retief, principal, PJ Olivier: “Schools working together, and support from the SGB, parents, and staff.”
What are schools worried about?
Alan Thompson, St Andrew’s College: “I have confidence in our processes but obviously if and when cases emerge they have to be managed very well, as each step impacts on the well-being of our boys.”
Jannie de Villiers, DSG: “Staff are the more vulnerable group, so we have advised vulnerable staff to stay home.”
Alison Dugmore, Oatlands primary: “My biggest concerns are that Grades R-3 are coming back in July because I don’t know how I’m going to ensure social distancing in that age group and for that number of students. You cannot expect a Grade R child to be seated in a desk all day. I think you can bring back the older children as it’s easier to reason with them.”
Colleen Vassiliou, Kingswood College: “We’re excited to welcome the learners back, but it’s new territory for everybody.”
Joubert Retief, PJ Olivier: “Social distancing might be impractical with junior learners. And some of our expectations might be unrealistic.”
Kevin Watson, Graeme College: “Parent concerns and doubts. But, we know we are as ready as any school possibly could be. The reality is that this pandemic isn’t going away, and we can’t hide from it. South Africa is still in the early stages, and we will need to ride this out with our community. Our learners need to be educated.”
Protocols and PPEs
Alison Dugmore, Oatlands Primary: “We’ve got everything in place. Sanitisers have been donated, and we have a desk for each child and moved 1.5 metres apart. There are stickers for screening stations for the children and different routes to go up- and downstairs. We split the two Grade 7 classes into three and rewrote the timetable. We have also decided that they are not going to wear a uniform to allow them to wash their clothes after the school day. We have received PPE for the staff and have received an email to say the children’s masks are being delivered – which should be received.”
Alan Thompson, St Andrew’s College: “We have to ensure that students and staff are physically distanced and that means set seating spaces and a thorough cleaning process between classes. There are strict protocols in place regarding masks, sanitising, and physical distance in class. We are providing every staff member and student with face masks, and all of our medical team have been issued with appropriate PPE. We have been preparing since lockdown and have a large multi-disciplinary committee that meets regularly and in parts, as well as a medical panel that advises us on specific matters. We’re also part of the G30 group of schools, and so have been able to learn from the experiences of school elsewhere in the world who are some weeks ahead of South Africa in terms of their return to school.”
Kevin Watson, Graeme College: “Staff have been actively involved and planning in this process. We have always sought advice and guidance from our SGB along the way, and we are very confident that we have all bases covered. The department has also provided three extra staff to assist with the Covid-19 protocols. We will use large venues for Grade 12 subjects (i.e. the hall, music centre and Graemian Centre). Pupils are allocated a desk, which they don’t share. All venues have projectors, whiteboards, sound, etc.”
Jannie de Villiers, DSG: “Staff and medical practitioners from around the country, including parents, senior staff and the school doctors, have helped to develop protocols. Teachers have been been astonishingly helpful. We spent these last weeks developing protocols and policies aligned with rules and regulations from the DBE and the Department of Labour (as we are both a workplace and a school). Each learner will bring three masks, but we also have stock on campus.”
Colleen Vassiliou, Kingswood College: “Every person has to answer screening questions when they arrive daily. If anyone answers yes to any of the screening questions then they’re sent home. We have insourced our own masks.”
Joubert Retief, PJ Olivier: “Not necessarily. It depends on the National Recovery Plan. Learners who were unable to work during lockdown will be supported with extra-classes. With the shortened school holidays, there will now be 81 days of tuition – previously there were 61 days of tuition left. This gives learners more than enough time if they prepare and work hard.”
Kevin Watson, Graeme College: “The only grade to not have curriculum reductions is Grade 12. Hence the need to get going with them as soon as possible.”
Alan Thompson, St Andrew’s College: “We have lost no teaching time and the curriculum has not been trimmed.”
Jannie de Villiers, DSG: “We had an opportunity to look at the curriculum and trim slightly – we encouraged staff to see this as an opportunity to learn differently and students do not have to learn in a chronological, linear way. The most important part of the curriculum in the coming weeks is to teach the girls the values that will help us in this time. We will spend a lot of time training the girls to understand the protocols and deal with the emotional impact of what is happening.”
Colleen Vassiliou, Kingswood College: “No, not at this stage.”
Alison Dugmore, Oatlands Primary: “We have been given the necessary documents for the trimmed curriculum. The HOD has done that and is happy for Grade 7 to return.”
Kevin Watson, Graeme College: “All our Grade 7 and 12 boarders have already returned. So many protocols are in place, it’s hard to even list. But social distancing, sanitisation and common sense have guided all our decision making. Many areas of our campus are off-limits to learners, to assist in avoiding any close gatherings. Access to the campus is tightly controlled and monitored. Likewise, access to the school building has been limited to two entrances. Each Grade has its own entrance. We have been inspected by the education department and the health department, who have both given us excellent feedback, and have stated that we are literally in the perfect place to receive learners. We did not receive one concern from either inspection.”
Alan Thompson, St Andrew’s College: “We expect most of our 400 boarders to return (except for out-of-country learners). The hostel protocols are quite demanding – they require staggered mealtimes, stringent cleaning of ablutions and rooms, staggered shower times, and physical distancing between beds in shared rooms. Before departure, they complete a risk questionnaire and health survey on the boarding App online, and they are then temperature screened on arrival. After that, it’s twice daily screening. One issue that we are still grappling with is with our over-border students, and hope to find out from the government next week whether they will be allowed to travel and what the quarantine process will entail.”
Jannie de Villiers, DSG: “Over 80% of our 420 learners are boarders and we have a comprehensive protocol for them. We have a bubble system where we bubble every grade in a different boarding house and they each have their own classrooms. If there is an outbreak, the other grades will not be affected. We asked all girls to isolate for two weeks before they return to school and just limit exposure to families so that there is a fair likelihood that girls will remain clear. On arrival, students will be screened by nurses and then daily, everyone who comes on campus is screened. Every girl recorded in an app and checked for symptoms and temperature. Boarders are screened every day before breakfast.”
Colleen Vassiliou, Kingswood College: “Most of our learners are boarders and they will be screened on arrival. Our protocols are in line with those specified by the Department.”
Jannie de Villiers, DSG: “Online teaching will carry on with some lessons happening on campus for girls to attend in person. Online schooling has been running seamlessly since March and will be the backbone of the academic offering so that those at home are still on the same page and can attend classes every day. Online teaching will probably run for the rest of the year.”
Alison Dugmore, Oatlands Primary: “We have been doing online teaching on Whatsapp groups for the last three months. Booklets were collected and returned once a week.”
Joubert Retief, PJ Olivier: “In the meantime, online work will continue to prepare for the return to school. The calendar will be adapted to complete important work and the curriculum has been sent to teachers.”