COVID-19 BACK TO SCHOOL RISKS

Published 21 April 2020

Courtesy of Sowetanlive – FILE PIC: Grade 3 teacher Nomzekelo Ndibongo and her 97 pupils cram into one classroom at Putuma Junior Secondary School in Elliotdale. Picture: MAYIBONGWE MAQHINA.

Published – 21 April 2020

OVERVIEW

The intention of this article is to only highlight various concerns and to NOT provide or suggest solutions. Any opinions are my own.

The gap in the education system and facilities in South Africa is broad and I am not discussing the merits of this, but only intend highlighting potential threats and risks for discussion and consideration.

SOCIAL DISTANCING

CLASSROOMS

For the purposes of this article I have used the model of Primary Schools.

Learning Environment

Many facilities, which are fortunate enough to even have desks for pupils, do not have a single desk per learner. Some use double-desks and the distance between these pupils is then mere centimetres. Two pupils to a desk will also likely result in them both contacting the same surfaces. There is unlikely funding available to replace double-desks while many schools don’t have any at all.

What do we do? Do we separate the pupils and only allow 1 at a desk? What happens to the remaining pupils?

We are heading into winter. Many classrooms are not heated and windows and doors may remain shut, creating “incubation areas” in which the virus may be spread more easily.

PHYSICAL CONTACT

Sport

Contact sports can easily be banned so this is a non-issue. But will they be?

Assemblies

Similarly, assemblies and formal school gatherings can also simply not be held. Will they be stopped?

General Contact Risk

Children however have a tendency to share physical things, be they pens and pencils, lunch containers and food, looking at each others phones, tablets and paper books. The 2 meter distance WILL likely be ignored as they peer at images together or help each other with problem solving in a workbook.

Exam Venues

Venues for examinations, especially at higher levels, are usually the school hall or other larger capacity rooms, if classrooms are not used.

How will numbers be controlled during these times?

BREAK TIMES

During tea and lunch breaks, pupils tend to gather in their own social groups. They may be small groups but gather they do. Preventing this can and will be a challenge.

Most likely solutions will be to remain in classrooms, but then teachers will have to remain present, as leaving a group of young children unsupervised, even for a short period of time, will most likely erupt into chaos. Teachers then will not be taking their needed breaks.

How will crowding be prevented with the rush of pupils from classrooms to fields etc at the start and end of these breaks? Shoulders will be rubbed. Hugs and loving punches etc. will be exchanged and hands shaken.

HYGIENE

Many rural schools don’t have running water or flushable ablutions.

Will soap and hot water be provided? Many don’t even have water so how will washing with HOIT water be achieved?

Will sufficient masks and hand sanitiser be provided?

Who will provide them? Parents who can afford to do so in some cases, but will schools do so in other cases? Masks are usually required to be of a disposable type. Literature indicates that cloth or fabric masks are of a high risk and should not be re-used as the virus can remain on them. 

How will it be ensured that suitable masks are supplied, used and more importantly kept clean?

Children mostly are permitted to only use ablutions during tea and lunch breaks. The facilities become crowded with pushing and shoving by those who have been desperately waiting for the opportunity to empty bowels and bladders.

Queuing while desperate could have embarrassing results.

TRANSPORT

Who is is responsible for pupils off of the school premises?

Pupils not fortunate enough to be transported by their parents or guardians will be either walking or using public transport to and from schools. Will the 2 x meter distance be maintained? Unlikely! They will likely walk together or gather in groups waiting for transport.

Potential for exposure and contamination is going to increase, especially as time passes and different pupils share different taxis and buses, or walk together.

Many children in rural areas are in community homes and often being cared for by grandparents and in some cases siblings.

What is the risk of infections being transmitted to grandparents and caregivers who, if they became ill, would leave the children destitute?

SCREENING

Employers will be required to consider risks and to implement controls for workers when they return to workplaces. Will the same be required of each and every school headmaster / principle and teachers?

Will schools be provided with sufficient (if any) screening equipment e.g. thermometers, and will teachers be trained to perform screening and to implement the required action plans and controls?

Will screening be done before access to the premises is permitted?

Will the time factor to perform such screening be considered? It could take hours to screen all pupils before allowing them access.

What will be done when a pupil shows symptoms? Sent home perhaps? Tested perhaps? What about the rest of their classmates, the whole school perhaps and all pupils immediate families? What about tracing? Taxi and bus drivers who may have been exposed may be passing on the virus to other passengers.

What if the pupil walked to school? Are they simply going to be turned away, resulting in exposing them to potential predators?

Feeding Schemes

Many children depend on subsidised feeding schemes for their meals.

How will those service providers be managed to prevent spreading infections?

TEACHERS

At what risks to exposure are we placing our teachers and their families?

Are we ready to return to school?

Will our schools educate our children on control measures?

Who will educate our educators?

Will enough be done to protect our children?

Will sufficient and suitable masks and sanitizers be provided?

Who will be checking and verifying this?

Will classrooms, laboratories, libraries and ablution facilities be regularly sanitized by competent persons?  

Will the Department of Education and / or the schools be held accountable and responsible if they fail to ensure adequate protection and will those in charge be criminally punished?

LET’S KEEP OUR CHILDREN SAFE

Read COVID19 Risk to Infants for advice.

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