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Debbie Schäfer on Covid-19 in W Cape schools

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There has been a great deal of interest recently in comments made by Dr Michael Ryan of the World Health Organisation regarding schools and Covid-19, which have been used to motivate for the closure of schools in South Africa.

Unfortunately, some are only portraying selected phrases from his comments and ignoring the rest of the important points he made. These included evaluating each specific country/context individually and using data and evidence to ensure that the decision to re-open schools is based on the best interests of children – including their educational interests.

To better understand how the pandemic is unfolding in our schools, the WCED has been working with the provincial Department of Health to verify our reports of Covid-19 cases amongst our staff members. We have taken this step because the WCED is not the custodian of medical records, and amongst other things, we would not be able to accurately report the cause of death without the assistance of the DoH.

This analysis has now been completed, and we would like to share this information with you.

WCED staff (Department of Health data)

As of 16 July 2020, there are 333 active Covid-19 cases amongst WCED staff. This amounts to 0.8% of WCED staff. The total number of cases since 22 March (the first reported staff case) is 1 920 – this includes cases that were reported before schools re-opened. Our number of new weekly staff cases is currently decreasing.

We have very sadly lost 30 staff members, 21 of whom are teachers, to the disease. We offer our deepest condolences to their families, friends and colleagues in this difficult time. It is especially difficult when health restrictions limit our ability to mourn together.

It is, however, encouraging to see that the overwhelming majority of our staff members who have been infected have already recovered from Covid-19. 1 557 staff members have recovered to date. We wish all those who are still currently infected a speedy and complete recovery.  The number of deaths of teachers amounts to 0.84% of the total number of deaths in the Western Cape, and 0.07% of our teacher cohort.

These figures are summarised below:

22 March –

16 July

Teachers

Non-teaching staff

Office-based staff

Total

Confirmed cases

1 562

264

94

1 920

Recoveries

1 273

211

73

1 557

Deaths

21

6

3

30

Active cases

268

47

18

333

Learners

In addition, we will continue to receive the reports of learners who have tested positive for Covid-19. 379 learners have tested positive since 1 June when the first grades returned to class.

This amounts to 0.1% of learners in the grades that have returned to class and many of these children have already recovered as well. No deaths of learners have been reported to the WCED. These numbers accord with the advice received from health experts that children, in general, are less likely to get or spread Covid-19 and that they are less likely to get seriously ill from it.

Covid-19 in schools

Over half of Western Cape schools have not reported a positive case.

Of the schools that have reported a positive case of Covid-19 to their district office, the majority (72.4%) have only reported one or two cases at their school. Thus, we are not seeing evidence of mass spreading of the virus at schools. It should also be remembered that a case reported by a school does not necessarily mean that the individual was infected at the school.

We do expect to see cases reported by schools in areas where there is high community transmission. What we are not seeing is evidence that staff or learners are at greater risk of acquiring Covid-19 at school than elsewhere. In fact, organisations that have been monitoring our schools have commented that learners practice better physical distancing and hygiene measures at school than they do outside of school in the surrounding community (where they may be unsupervised as parents are at work).

Yet, schooling specifically has been targeted for closure. Why are other services – such as supermarkets, banks, cleaning services, government offices, and many others that have reported cases and had to close temporarily for cleaning – considered essential, while education is being considered a ‘nice to have’ and that we can ‘sacrifice the year’ in education?

Surely it cannot be that our country places a lower value on education when the impact of the education gap is evident in our daily lives, and the gaps in education will have a direct impact on our economy!

The WCED considers education – which is a constitutional right – to be fundamentally important to a child’s health, food security, future earnings and safety. The negative consequences only compound the longer schools are closed.

Certainly, parents who have the means to provide internet access and supervision may be able to keep their children up to date with school work, but we cannot simply forget the learners whose parents do not have these resources and who need to go back to work at a time when jobs are precious. Parents have the ability to keep their children at home should they wish – but those individuals who demand that other people’s children also stay at home demonstrate questionable motives.  It is also unrealistic to expect e-learning devices and broadband to quickly be rolled out to those who do not have it.  It is something that requires a huge amount of money, which is not available, as well as detailed planning, which takes a lot of time.

As Dr Ryan said: “we can’t turn schools into yet another political football in this game.” We must make decisions based on evidence and expert advice. The evidence we have is that schools do not expose learners and staff to a higher level of risk than other places. Closing schools again will have a devastating effect on children for years to come.

I would like to thank all of those school staff members who have stood up for the educational interests of our learners, even in the face of opposition and their own anxieties about Covid-19. They are the educational lifeline that our children can hold on to and have the full support of the WCED in doing so.

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