“Hy maak seer!”
St Mary’s Primary School teacher Charmell Williams was relieved to get her Covid-19 jab on Thursday. But… yes it was a bit sore.
There were grimacing smiles at Makhanda’s vaccination site this week as many teachers expressed relief they were finally getting their shots – but confessed to being just a little scared of injections.
“It’s burning a little bit,” said Patricia Bingham, who also teaches at St Mary’s. “But it is such a relief to finally get vaccinated. It’s such a worry. It’s very stressful being a teacher when there is Coronavirus.”
Principals, staff and education officials had high praise for the Department of Health’s Makana Subdistrict this week. In a three-day blitz at a temporary vaccination site at a local school, the Department had vaccinated 545 public school employees by 2pm on Friday 25 June.
But there’s been frustration and disappointment as some staff from local schools were turned away on Day 1 because they were not on the state’s PERSAL system; independent schools were informed that their teachers would not be included in this round of vaccinations; and what the national Department of Basic Education said would happen was different from how the rollout was implemented.
“The vaccination process has gone very smoothly,” said Department of Education Area Manager Sizwe Betela earlier today. He praised the efficiency of Department of Health’s temporary vaccination site set up at Graeme College.
“There have been no long queues, and those eligible have been processed smoothly,” he said.
A total of 545 Education Department staff had been vaccinated by 2pm Friday 25 June: 245, 205 and 95 on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday respectively, Betela said.
GMDirect visited the vaccination site on Thursday 24 June. Waiting areas for checking on registration details, vaccination and monitoring were clearly marked and marshalls were there to direct recipients.
Teachers and principals were likewise impressed with the way the site was run.
“We’re sincerely grateful to the Department of Health for being so well organised,” said one school principal. “The process at the vaccination centre is efficient and professional.”
But schools expressed frustration at unclear information from the Department of Education about who was going to be vaccinated and when. “It’s been completely hit and miss,” said one principal. “Even when we receive a list of who must go and get vaccinated, it doesn’t make sense why some of our staff are on it and others are not.”
A circular to all provincial education heads, district directors, circuit managers, principals and school governing bodies (SGBs) dated 19 June sets out the categories of people to be vaccinated; what recipients need to do to be vaccinated; and what documentation they must bring for identification and verification at vaccination sites.
“All employees in the Basic Education sector are eligible to get a vaccine for the purposes of the COVID-19 vaccination programme,” states circular S3 of 2021. “The Basic Education sector refers to staff at National, Provincial, District and Circuit levels as well as public schools. This also includes independent schools.”
The circular says teachers appointed by the Department, by the School Governing Bodies (SGBs) and in the independent school sector are all eligible to be vaccinated in this phase.
So are administrative and support staff appointed by the Department; non-teaching staff appointed by the Department (drivers, cleaners, janitors, security guards, etc.); and all hostel staff appointed by the Department.
In a media briefing the day before, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga had said that in their deliberations with the Department of Health, it had been further agreed that the vaccination programme must cover school transport providers, school nutrition programme food handlers, staff who do remote learning programmes (TV and Radio); and staff of teacher unions and other contracted staff who provide security, do cleaning and other functions at schools.
But 15 school employees were turned away from the Makhanda vaccination site on Wednesday because they are not on the PERSAL system. PERSAL is the combined human resource, personnel and salary system used by all South Africa’s national and provincial government departments. Around 600 education staff in Makhanda are registered on it.
At the vaccination site on Thursday, GMD asked Betela about the contradiction between this, and the messages from the national department.
“First, this is a national problem,” Betela said. “Not just a Makhanda problem.
“The stats the Department of Health received from the Department of Education were only for educators,” Betela said.
“We are saying all education staff must be vaccinated, from teachers to cleaners, and we have collected that data. But so far it is only educators who have been uploaded to the [electronic vaccination data system (EVDS)].”
Effectively there were two lists, Betela said: those on the [PERSAL] system and those not on it.
Today, Betela said he had received a list of teachers from one of the town’s independent schools.
“The Department of Health will come back for anyone who missed being vaccinated this week,” he said.
Not catered for at all in this round of vaccinations are Grade R teachers and other early childhood development staff.
“They don’t fall under the Department of Education, but Social Development and it’s up to that Department to make sure they get vaccinated,” Betela said.
On Thursday, schools were sent a link from the District office for non-PERSAL staff to register on the EVDS; however, it appeared to be only for Nelson Mandela Bay.
On Friday, Betela said his staff were still confirming information about non-PERSAL staff at schools.
“We are still feeding this information to head office,” he said. “There are still quite a number of staff to be vaccinated.” At lunchtime on Friday, 545 had been vaccinated.
There would be “mopping up” to make sure all school staff in Makhanda get vaccinated.
Health Department Subdistrict head Mohamed Docrat said the original schedule for schools vaccinations would have required more sites, and more vaccinators than the Department has available.
Instead, in consultation with the Education Department, they had decided to vaccinate in Makhanda first. Next week the schools vaccination teams will move to Port Alfred, and Klipfontein at Bushmans River Mouth.
The vaccines are delivered in batches, Docrat said.
Docrat said there had been some communication challenges, including the last minute cancellation by the school principal of a planned second vaccination site.
He said the DoH is only able to vaccinate people loaded on the EVDS. “We support the need for everyone in schools to be vaccinated, but we can only vaccinate them once they are loaded on to the system.”
The Department is tight-lipped about exactly how many vaccinations are available for education staff in the Makana Subdistrict; however, Docrat said as new tranches of the J&J vaccine arrive, more and more staff in the education sector would be vaccinated.
Pragmatism trumps policy
The Governing Body Foundation represents around 650 public schools in all nine South African provinces. Its head office is in Johannesburg and it has regional offices in Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg, and Port Elizabeth. GMD asked national CEO Dr Anthea Cereseto, to comment on the glitches in the rollout of vaccinations for basic education.
Teachers at independent schools, school governing body (SGB) appointed staff and others not on PERSAL have been pushed back in the queue for vaccinations, as the Department of Health expands the rollout among essential workers.
That’s not how it should have been, says Governing Body Foundation CEO Dr Anthea Cereseto. But under the cricumstances, it was the correct decision.
“Pragmatic,” she said. “But also expedient.
“This is a national campaign,” Cereseto said. “You can’t treat private and state differently because this is not an employee based rollout and it’s not the prerogative of the Department of Basic Education to appropriate all the vaccines for that programme.”
But initially prioritising PERSAL staff is a strategy Cereseto supports, and she explains why.
Every phase of the vaccine rollout, in every sector, should be a national process, is Cereseto’s starting point.
“The national departments of Health and Education should have sent out one simple message.”
The problem started with the delay in the delivery of the J&J vaccine because of quality control problems at one of its manufacturing sites in the US.
“It was all excitement for the education sector, then a big let-down.”
The reason for apparently conflicting instructions was that at first, the Department of Health had sourced 300 000 vaccines.
“Our country has around 450 000 educators and, say, 200 000 support staff. That wouldn’t have been enough and so they had to decide ‘Who first?’”
That was when the directive that staff over 40 would receive it was issued.
Then when it turned out that 500 000 vaccines were available, the Education Minister announced that everyone in the basic education sector would receive it.
But that still would not be enough for the sector and so another decision had to be made.
“If they had stuck to the original plan of educators over 40, there would have been enough to cover all teachers,” Cereseto said. “At least an age category had a scientific basis.”
While every province has implemented the national instruction differently, and Cereseto is critical of the mixed messages, she supports the logic of using easily verifiable systems to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible.
“The PERSAL system is there and readily available to the DBE so it made sense to start with those staff,” she said.
“Every province has done this differently. In Gauteng, non-educators were also vaccinated.”
It had made it possible to use vaccines (which must be used within a certain period before they expire) in schools.
“There were arms to put them in, so they let it happen.”
She also supports teachers being prioritised over support staff because of the close contact they have with big groups of children.
“It’s true that it results in the Province ‘looking after its own’. But I think it’s also correct, rational and reasonable to first vaccinate people already on the system.”
She says the prioritisation of PERSAL staff, public school teachers, then independent school teachers is as logical as it can be under the circumstances.
“In our meetings with the national departments (Health and Education) we did fight for the independent schools and not just ‘our own’ because this is a national campaign.
“But under the circumstances, I think the order of priority is justiifiable.”
The Foundation, along with other education sector bodies, will meet with the DBE’s Director General on Sunday for its weekly update on the rollout and plans for public schools.
“We make sure we stay informed about the rollout and we are tracking the vaccinations sites,” she said.