What is it like to be teaching during a pandemic?

As we close in on a year-and-a-half of what has been a world-shaking pandemic, everyone has paid a cost. Whether it has been personal or in your community, financial or mental-health related, no-one has escaped. But some have definitely paid more than others.

A teacher friend asked if they could use this space to share some of their thoughts and feelings and experiences as – in the way they signed off this letter – an ‘Outraged, scared and burned out Teacher’, and it felt like the very least i could do.

Please give this a read and consider sharing it in your spaces, and, if you know the president, Cyril Ramaphosa, maybe you could pass it on to him…

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Dear Mr President and fellow South Africans.

I am writing this letter to you as an outraged teacher, teaching during a pandemic. During the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the country deserves to know what is really going on in our public primary schools.

Let’s start with what should be happening: Initially, learners were expected to be at least 1,5 metres apart, this has been revised to 1 metre. During break times, learners may remove their masks to eat, but should be 3 metres apart. Learners should sanitise their work surfaces regularly during the day and should have their hands sanitised every time they enter or leave a classroom. Learners should be allowed to go to the bathroom throughout the day to minimise traffic in the bathroom during breaks. The classrooms are supposed to be cleaned and sanitised daily by the schools’ ground staff. If a learner or educator tests positive for COVID-19, they must isolate for 10 days. If a learner or educator has had close contact with someone that has COVID-19, they must quarantine for 14 days. Positive cases are meant to be disclosed to the public. The guidelines of what to do are clearly laid out in a document called ‘COVID-10 STANDARD OPERATION PROCEDURES’, commonly known to educators as SOP.

The Department of Education has stated that primary school children are the least adversely affected by COVID-19 and they have therefore decided that as of the third term, all learners must return to school on a full-time basis. However, they still want schools to implement the SOP. Most primary schools have double seater desks, where two learners are expected to sit right next to each other. The Department of Education is fully aware of this, and will simply turn a blind eye to the fact that social distancing has never been possible, so it most certainly won’t be now. Even with 20 learners in a class as opposed to 40, there has been less than 1 metre between a learner and the next child sitting behind them. Classes that have 40 learners when at 100% capacity, are still the fortunate ones. What about the classes that have 60 or 70 learners in them? No cloth mask or face shield can fully protect these children when they need to sit together at one desk, with their shoulders touching and their peer’s stationery and books touching theirs.

The Department of Education has also been very quiet about the fact that many learners in primary school are no longer considered to be children. Learners who have started school late, or have repeated grades in multiple phases may be well into their teenage years when they are in senior primary. Are these learners seriously considered low risk? It is not at all logical to expect primary schools to go back to full capacity every day when the number of positive cases in primary schools is higher now than it has ever been. Consider Gauteng, how many schools have had to close recently and how many of them were primary schools? How can the current events not inform the Department of Education to make better choices?

At break times, educators are expected to ensure that learners remain 3 metres apart while eating. This is an impossible task. Children are not concerned about personal space as it is, so to ensure that learners remain stationary and 3 metres apart is just not realistic. It doesn’t help that many schools have become lackadaisical and no longer provide clear markings to show children where to sit during breaks or where to line up before or after school. Many children remove their masks before or after school to eat and this is usually done when they are in groups, waiting around to be collected by public transport. In public transport they won’t be socially distanced, nor will they be told to wear their masks correctly.

Educators who are teaching during a pandemic are expected to work longer hours as the school day has to start earlier to ensure that all screening is done and educators are expected to be on duty before and after school to try and ensure social distancing and proper use of masks. Educators are also expected to do more than double the amount of break duties. Even though the number of learners at school is currently at 50% of the full capacity, the number of educators on duty has had to more than double to ensure that there are enough staff members to enforce the rules. No matter how many members of staff you have on duty, it is simply never enough to walk around the field, where children are sitting (or running and playing if they are not following the rules, which, do you blame them?) without face masks on, to tell them to spread out. While doing this, we the educators, are constantly putting ourselves at risk.

We educators are exhausted! No…not exhausted – absolutely burnt out! We haven’t had a proper break since the beginning of this pandemic. We have had to use all of our available resources to come up with ways to reach all of our learners, be it at school or online. We have had to revise our planning and preparations as we have received revised and updated curriculum from the Department. A lot of this has had to happen during the school holidays, especially when schools received documents late. On top of all of this, most of us are working full days, starting earlier and ending later with NO breaks. As the number of positive cases among the educators rises, the educators who are left at school are having to cover more classes. We are simply stretched beyond what we can manage. This is extremely hazardous to our already compromised health!

Some schools do not want to be transparent about the number of positive cases. Educators and learners are not being properly informed. When an educator who has been teaching during a pandemic contracts COVID-19, the other educators that have been in close contact with that person are told to continue coming to work unless they show symptoms! If a child’s family member contracts COVID-19, educators are instructed to tell the family that, if after 5 days, the child has no symptoms they may return to school! I would love to know what makes the lives of all other South Africans more valuable that they may quarantine if they have had contact with someone who has COVID-19, but in education, we can’t – we must simply press on. There is also the matter of parents who don’t have any other options. If their children are sick and there is no one to look after them, they send them to school. I have had learners who tested positive for COVID-19, come back to school before their 10 days of isolation was completed because their parents were too ill to care for them!

My closest colleague at school has been sick for over 3 weeks. She continued to come to work as she felt pressurised to do so. Taking leave at our school – even sick leave – is frowned upon. Eventually, she became so ill that she had to see a doctor. She tested positive for COVID-19 and two days later, was admitted to hospital. Currently, my colleague is fighting for her life, in a ward with 3 other educators! Upon finding out that she had tested positive, I asked the head of the COVID-19 Response Team at my school if I should go home. I was told no, as I was not displaying any symptoms. The following day, I chose not to go to work and to go for a COVID test, which I had to pay for as my doctor would not write a referral letter because, according to protocol, I should be at home, in quarantine. I could not, in good conscience, continue going to work, knowing that I could be putting many lives at risk. My principal did not approve of my decision and was sure to tell the entire staff in our daily staff meeting, that there was no need to test if you are not displaying any symptoms (regardless of the fact that we are in close contact to each other, especially at break times.) Needless to say, my results came back positive and I am currently isolating.

I have been told that I may not inform my classes that I have contracted COVID-19, as this may cause alarm. The educator that is covering my classes for me must now continually lie when learners ask where I am. Once again, does this mean that all of the lives of my learners and fellow colleagues are less valuable than the lives of the people in every other sector in South Africa?! Not only do I consider this a double standard, but within our schools, there are MANY double standards as well. In my school, some of the management is extremely scared of contracting COVID-19. They refuse to sit in the hall during staff meetings, but rather stand at the door. They do not want to receive certain registers in paper format but request that they are emailed soft copies.

Management does not assist with invigilation during test periods, despite some of them being 2 hours long. Management does not assist with break duties. Wherever possible, they avoid being exposed and hide away in their offices. The code has been changed at the entrance to the offices to discourage educators from going in at all. One member of management in particular, will not go near anyone. After discovering that my colleague had tested positive, I was walking towards her. She saw me coming and turned around and walked in the opposite direction. I felt as if I was walking around at work with leprosy. Management gets the interns at our school to cover their classes wherever possible as well.

Of course all of this is completely overlooked. The public is being fed continuous news about the vaccines and how educators will soon be receiving these, as if this solves everything. The vaccines do not provide 100% protection against COVID-19 – just go and read the information on WHO’S website – they actually have no idea about the efficacy of the vaccine, how long it provides protection or even if it stops one from being a carrier! Many educators have not yet made up their minds as to whether or not they want to receive the vaccine and now it is all happening so suddenly.

I do want to be vaccinated, but as I have now contracted COVID-19, I will not be able to do so for at least 3 months. This means that I will be forced to go back to classes with 40 learners, before receiving the vaccine. This is the case for all of the educators who currently have COVID-19. Some of the after effects of COVID-19 are long-lasting and make teaching very difficult, for example: shortness of breath, fatigue, muscular weakness and forgetfulness. Yet when our isolation period is up, we are expected to return to work, despite how cold it is. We are expected to travel from class to class, as learners remain in one class with the exception of breaks. We must carry all of the necessary resources with us. We must walk the classes down to break and back to class afterwards. When must we rest? When are we able to eat or use the bathroom?

South Africa, is education in this chaos more valuable than the health and well-being of your children and their educators? The only way educators can take a stand is to arrange a legal strike. This would mean unpaid leave. As it is, we did not receive an increase last year despite longer working hours and the increase in the cost of living. So in essence, our hands are tied, there is nothing we can do. Schools need to close until the numbers decrease drastically and until all educators who wish to are given a fair chance to receive the vaccine. If it has been possible to have classes at 50% of their capacity for so long, then instead of rushing to get all learners back, the Department of Education should be looking at ways to make this work more effectively so that we can ensure the health and safety everyone.

Outraged, scared and burned out Teacher

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Another helpful read is this post from my friend Uel Maree made fairly early during the pandemic but still quite as relevant from one who practically lives in his bed. Catch the story of Uel Maree.

Parents have also had it super rough, especially parents of younger children and so we compiled this huge list of ideas to help parents to get creative when their children were at home a whole lot more: Ideas for children during the pandemic