MASERU – Science, and not politics, must drive government’s decision about how and when to reopen schools – this is the uncompromising message teachers’ unions are sending education minister Ntlhoi Motsamai.
The unions argue that included in the decision to reopen schools should be consideration for best science on controlling the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in keeping students, teachers, families as well as the art of learning and child development safe.
National reopening of schools, they say, should not be guided by empty unfulfilled promises by both government and education minister to provide schools with personal protective equipment (PPE) while reality is a deathtrap for the country’s schools children.
Monday this week marked resumption of schooling for Grades 5, 6 and 7 together with Early Childhood Care Development (ECCD) learners – this following a lengthy break due to COVID-19 lockdown restrictions that saw learning suspended. The remaining Grades 1, 2, 3 and 4 will reconvene next week Monday.
Unions have given a directive, upon return to the classroom, that primary school teachers will not teach children until the education ministry provides schools with PPE.
Lesotho Association of Teachers (LAT) secretary general, Letsatsi Ntsibolane, told this publication that the ministry has ordered reopening of schools without providing the necessary PPE as had been recommended, and agreed to by all concerned parties.
He argued their position is solely meant to avoid possible transmission of COVID-19 between students and teachers. Ntsibolane said it was their responsibility as unions to ensure teachers’ safety, further pointing out that as much as they will try to ensure that children are save as well “it is not our responsibility to do so, but the ministry’s.”
Ntsibolane said a well-thought strategy to safely reopen schools is in place as mapped by the stakeholders, the agreement was to the effect that primary schools will be given a month to prepare for the re-opening of schools.
This has, however, not happened, Ntsibolane said. He said the preparation involved, among other key issues, the distribution of PPE to schools as well as other arrangements to ensure that Covid protocols are adhered to at all times.
“Our believe was that when we have given ourselves a month to prepare, PPE will be there when schools reopen; as opposed to secondary schools, primary schools do not have transport facilities so the ministry has to transport the said PPEs to schools.
Another thing is that some primary schools do not have active bank accounts, therefore, it will be very difficult to give them money to buy PPE themselves like it was done in some high schools,” he clarified.
“A month’s preparation was meant to cater for these. But very unfortunately that did not happen as agreed by the two parties. As we speak the ministry has just started the process of distributing PPE in schools around the country. As of today, only Mafeteng has covered a number of schools, other districts are yet to be given the PPE. Thaba-Tseka will receive PPE next week after having opened schools doors for an entire week.”
Ntsibolane pointed out that procurement processes for the PPE started early in 2020 “but was delayed by a court case where companies that were supposed to supply and deliver the PPE fought over the tender.
The procurement process started early last year, but because of greed and capitalism, people who were allocated tenders to supply PPE went to court fighting over the tender and as a result the tender was put on hold.
Were it not for the legal battle, the PPE will have been delivered to schools before reopening.” It is upon this backdrop, Ntsibolane said, that the LAT ordered their member teachers to respect the given instruction to reopen schools but “not do anything that will put them at risk.” “Teachers should not mark any schools work or do anything that will call for sharing of materials or any surface, they should just go to school and ensure that leaners also don’t do anything that will endanger them since they have no sanitizers.”
He further noted that at primary level education is free, and there is no way schools can be expected purchase PPE for themselves as “they have no money at all.” “Remember we have a right to avoid risky areas, we also have a right not to be subjected to risk. The best we can do is try the utmost to ensure that our teachers and the students do not infect one another…ensuring that they do not interact in a risk way.”
He said students will, therefore, not be taught until schools receive PPE to avoid subjecting teachers to risk. “Schools can open, we do not have the power to close them but leaners will come to school and not be taught,” he said. Public Eye on Tuesday visited St James Anglican Primary School, in Maseru, to observe the reopening of schools and talk to the school’s authorities about their readiness. Acting Principal, ‘Malimpho Molapo, confirmed that school had not received any form of PPE from the education ministry, she said she was forced to use her own money to buy a sanitizer and soap.
She said she has not even received any report regarding the promised PPE but “heard from the grapevine that they might get their consignment in the next week.” “As you can see, we have not been given any PPE, the sanitizer and soap you see were bought from our own pockets. The ministry of education has neither given us PPE nor informed us when we will receive it. We were only told to open the school. “What I heard from some people is that we might receive the PPE next week,” she said.
She noted that all they were doing was to ensure that children adhered to COVID-19 protocols to avoid the spread of the virus; she was worried, however, that behavoural change remained a problem when it comes to children.
Molapo said a sensitasation workshop has, however, been convened by the ministry where they were encouraged to buy at least two box of surgical masks for emergencies “as they are less suffocating.” She, however, noted that the schools have no money to buy surgical masks and hope government will come to their rescue.”
She noted that they were also given 250 fabric masks to give to vulnerable children. Speaking on the welfare of the children in their schools, Molapo said the majority of students in Grades 5, 6 and 7 showed up at school and look physically and emotional healthy.
The order for the reopening of schools was issued by government on March 1, which read: “This circular is issued following the official statement by the Rt Honourable Prime Minister, pursuant to the Lesotho Government Gazette, Legal Notice of Public Health (COVID-19) (Risk Determination and Mitigation Measures) Regulations, 2021, all classes are essentially allowed to open now that the guiding colour code is on purple.
The ministry of education and training has therefore embarked on a cautious strategy of re-opening schools due to the reported escalating cases by NACOSEC. You are therefore, duly informed that schools shall open in phases. All public schools will open classes at all levels of secondary between the 3rd – 08th March 2021.
All independent/ private schools will reopen schools for all levels (ECCD, Primary and Secondary) on the 3rd March 2021.” The circular further stated that all public primary schools will reopen Grade 5, 6 and 7 on the April 6 while Grade 1, 2, 3 and 4 will reopen on the April 12. Efforts to get a comment from the education minister were futile until going to print, her phone was not answered.