LRC Calls for Educators to be Prioritized in Vaccination Drive

The Legal Resources Centre supports all efforts to ensure that teaching and learning in schools return to normal. However, given the risk of exposure to Covid-19 for educators, it is essential that educators be prioritized in the vaccine rollout strategy. This will protect both educators and learners, ensuring that education can continue to recover months of teaching and learning lost over the past year due to the pandemic.

On Friday, 28 May 2021, Basic Education Minister, Angie Motshekga, gazetted new directions regarding the re-opening of schools. The new directions state that all primary school learners (grades R to 7) must return to daily attendance and the traditional timetabling model, from 26 July 2021. This includes learners with special education needs. The directions came three days before President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that South Africa will be moved to alert level 2 in light of the incipient third wave.

In February 2021, the Minister of Health, Dr. Zweli Mkhize, stated that teachers will start receiving vaccines in April 2021 once healthcare workers have been vaccinated. This has not happened. With the vaccination of healthcare workers almost complete, the focus has shifted to people over the age of 60 years. Since most of the country’s 410 000 teachers are below the age of 60, they will have to wait months before being given access to the vaccine. It is not clear why teachers are no longer being prioritized and there is no indication of when the vaccination of teachers will commence.

In February 2021, Minister Motshekga announced that over 1 100 teachers had died from Covid-19 since the start of lockdown in March 2020 – this number is likely to have increased. While infections and deaths in children have been very low in South Africa, teachers are no doubt more exposed to Covid-19 due to the nature of their work. This is particularly true for educators in overcrowded classrooms with minimal space for social distancing and with little ventilation. While the directions call for all learners to return, they also compel schools to comply with social distancing, minimum health and safety measures on Covid-19, and to prevent overcrowding in classrooms. The directions even suggest that, where practicable, teaching may be conducted outside the confines of a classroom.

The reality is that South Africa has struggled with overcrowded classrooms that have impacted negatively on the education outcomes of learners for years.  In March 2020, the North West Provincial Department of Education reported there was a shortage of 1 281 classrooms in the province. The Gauteng Provincial Department indicated that it had a backlog of 4 103 classrooms that still need to be built. These backlogs have not been eradicated in the last year and have had a devastating impact on the ability of schools to comply with Covid-19 regulations on social distancing.

The situation is far worse in other provinces. Some schools in the Eastern Cape have virtually come to a standstill for many of their learners. These schools were struggling with overcrowded classrooms before the pandemic, and to comply with social distancing, they have had to incorporate a rotational system that sees some children only attending school once every three weeks. At Mnceba High School near Mount Frere, 17 of the school’s 25 classrooms have 70 or more learners and three of the classrooms have more than 90 learners. The school needs 20 classrooms to alleviate the overcrowding. The same is true for Enduku Junior Secondary School in Ngcobo that has three classrooms with over 100 learners, with 11 classrooms being necessary to alleviate the overcrowding. These schools are currently involved in litigation with the Eastern Cape Department of Education to compel the construction of more classrooms.

While the new directions allow teaching to be conducted outside the confines of a classroom, most schools are already at capacity and do not have access to school halls, recreational facilities, or other buildings that could serve as classrooms. Even if the schools did have access to these buildings, they would not have additional teachers to teach those classes. South African winter conditions are also not conducive to outside teaching and learning, and the new directions will be cold comfort to those forced to learn outside due to overcrowding.

Another major concern that can prevent children from accessing their right to education during the pandemic is the employment of educators with comorbidities. On 30 May 2020, Collective Agreement 1 of 2020: Concession Process to follow for Employees with Comorbidities (Covid-19) was entered into by the Department of Education and education trade unions. The Collective Agreement makes provision for teachers with comorbidities and those above the age of 60 to apply to remain at home during alert levels 2 and 3. As of Monday, 31 May 2021, all teachers who fall within this category and have been granted leave to stay at home, will be absent from schools. Alarmingly, no provision has been made for their replacement. Overcrowding, coupled with a shortage of teachers, is disastrous for the remaining educators and the learners whose right to education hangs in the balance.

The rapid vaccination of educators is critically important to ensure that learners’ right to basic education is realized. Teachers are the backbone of the education system and risk their lives every day to teach. They have the difficult task of managing both the teaching of children, as well as the implementation of Covid-19 regulations in the classroom. Once all learners are back in the classroom, this will be nearly impossible, and they will be more vulnerable than ever to Covid-19 infections. The South African education system cannot withstand another complete shutdown, and it is critical that education continues. It is also important that the Collective Agreement be revisited to provide for instances where teachers with comorbidities have been vaccinated and can return to schools.

The LRC calls on the government to urgently prioritize the vaccination of teachers in South Africa and ensure that all educators have been vaccinated before 26 July 2021 when all learners are expected back at school full time.