Following the Department of Basic Education’s (DBE) recent announcement that the reopening of schools would be pushed back to February 15, many teachers still feel that their concerns are not being adequately addressed by the governing bodies.
This according to teacher’s trade unions like SA Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU), the National Professional Teachers Union of South Africa (NAPTOSA) and the founder of online professional learning community Zibuza.net, Malcolm Mooi.
“While the teachers in our network appreciate the challenging position that the DBE is in, many still feel like not enough has been done to protect both them and their students as COVID-19 infection rates continue to rise and are sceptical about what improvements can realistically be made between now and February,” Mooi explains.
The Zibuza.net team benefits from the feedback of their almost 20 000 members and has conducted multiple surveys to assess how teachers are coping with the impact of COVID-19 on learning since the pandemic began. The results of their most recent survey, which was sent out before the reopening of schools was pushed back by two weeks, provides deeper insight into the concerns of teachers as relayed by the teaching unions.
Old rules no longer apply
The majority of the respondents to the survey (61%) indicated that they were 45 and over, placing them in a higher risk category for developing symptoms of COVID-19 according to The Mayo Clinic. However, the new South African variant of the virus (dubbed 501Y) has been seen to be highly contagious in adults and children alike, placing those in schools at a higher risk of transmission.
62% of Zibuza.net survey respondents indicated that either they, or one of their colleagues, had contracted COVID-19 while teaching.
No large-scale surveys have yet been conducted in any of South Africa’s major industries to be used as a point of comparison to this high percentage, but as teachers are classified as essential workers under the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out plan, it can be assumed that they are at a higher risk of infection than other groups.
“As an advocate for teachers, Zibuza.net welcomes the news that they are classified as essential workers and included in Phase 2 of the roll-out plan,” says Mooi. “But with no firm date as to when they can expect vaccination, many teachers believe that these measures will be too late to prevent schools from becoming super-spreader sites”.
Fears over new variant
“A whopping 90% of our survey respondents expressed that they are afraid of contracting COVID-19 while teaching, a fear that has only been compounded by news of the new, more infectious 501Y variant,” he says.
A significant portion of respondents expressed scepticism at both government’s ability to resolve outstanding issues by February 15th, and at their learners’ ability to follow COVID-19 protocols.
One private school teacher from Gauteng predicted that “far more teachers will become infected in the first quarter of 2021 as, in general, young people do not take social distancing and other precautions as seriously as adults do.”
Echoing her concerns, a Free State teacher says: “learners aren’t really scared of COVID-19 and most only wear a mask when you tell them to. They are often sitting in groups and leave some of their stationary at home and borrow from their friends.”
The survey results indicate that teachers spend a large part of the school day asking learners to adhere to COVID-19 protocol and believe that young people need to take greater responsibility for their own health and the health of those around them.
Failing that, several respondents call for stricter measures to be put in place, with consequences if not adhered to.
Unexpectedly, some of the concerns expressed by educators with regards to the new variant affecting younger people made no mention of health risks.
In a typical display of the selflessness displayed by many in the teaching profession, some respondents shared that their biggest fear about 2021 is that their pupils will be at an educational disadvantage if their parents choose to keep them home.
“Teachers, parents, learners – we’re all stuck between a rock and hard place while trying to find a balance between prioritising the educational needs of our nation’s learners and protecting ourselves from COVID-19”, sums up one Western Cape teacher.
“I’m always hopeful, but I just don’t see how we can find a way forward before schools reopen in February.”
Navigating this new era
As challenging as the situation may be, teachers, parents and learners do have resources available to them that provide both emotional and educational support.
“With e-learning looking like the most likely solution to supplement the disrupted curriculum, teachers, parents and learners are able to access a range of educational resources in all 11 official languages on the Zibuza.net website”, says Mooi.
“While Zibuza.net’s primary function is to serve as an online professional learning community, it’s also a COVID-friendly safe space for teachers to connect with their peers and provide emotional support – something I think everyone needs right now,” he concludes.