The challenges facing schools as they reopen

  • KidsInSchool
Jewish schools across the country are dealing with a multitude of practical, ethical, legal, and emotional challenges as they start the process of reopening on Monday, 1 June.
by TALI FEINBERG | May 28, 2020

With the risk of staff or pupils contracting COVID-19 after they return to school, the South African Board of Jewish Education (SABJE), with the assistance of its labour consultant, has drafted a declaration of intent or indemnity form for its staff, says Rabbi Craig Kacev, the general director of the SABJE.

“For staff who have pre-existing conditions, we realised that many wanted to return, and as such we needed to clarify the extent of the condition. Using a ‘declaration of intent’, we were able to secure medical letters as to whether staff were, in the view of their medical practitioners, able to return. In many cases we have had to advise staff that they may not return,” Kacev says.

“No staff member’s job is in jeopardy if they choose to stay at home due to a co-morbidity or the school insisting that they not return to the workplace,” he says. “Those who aren’t able to return will work from home.

“We are well aware that an indemnity cannot cover an employer if there is a known risk or if the employer doesn’t act reasonably. So, if a staff member has a co-morbidity that is confirmed by their medical practitioner, then they certainly need not sign an indemnity and even if they did, we wouldn’t let them work if there was concern about their health.”

The forms are also necessary to understand the number of staff who can return. And they offer information about who will be responsible for online teaching and how duties will be shared between staff.

“For those staff who are healthy, the form clarifies that we as an employer are taking every measure to comply with all reasonable requirements to ensure a safe environment,” Kacev told the SA Jewish Report.

Kacev and members of King David staff addressed further issues in a recent webinar. He said that the SABJE had considered a number of models once schools were allowed to reopen, and eventually settled on bringing back pupils for the least amount of time necessary. “There is no need to put anyone at unnecessary risk,” he said. Therefore, King David pupils will have a combination of learning in the classroom and remote learning.

The aim isn’t to bring back pupils en masse, but rather to have a slow process determined as each grade adheres to and understands the protocols in place. Each school’s capacity and situation is different. At first, only one grade will return per King David site.

Of the more than 1 600 responses to the school’s recent parents’ survey, more than 95% of pupils didn’t have any medical preconditions. Asked if the child lived with someone with a precondition, 19% responded that they did.

“This indicates that 24% of students may well not return to school. In total, 73.2% of parents have indicated that their children will return.” Kacef said there was still time to complete the survey, and asked parents to get in touch with their school to do so.

Lorraine Srage, the principal of King David High School Linksfield, says remote learning can never replace face-to-face teaching. It’s difficult to assess matrics when teachers literally can’t see their faces, with many pupils turning their cameras off when classes are conducted online.

Andrew Baker, the principal of King David High School Victory Park, echoes these sentiments, saying that both Grade 11s and matrics need face-to-face support to ensure the integrity of their matric year. Those in Grades 8 to 10 have more time to fill in the gaps.

“Fundamentally, children need to be at school,” said incoming SABJE General Director Rabbi Ricky Seeff. “Being back in the classroom may look different, but it’s essential for their emotional well-being.” Gaps in basic knowledge, especially for younger children, need to be assessed, and Grade 1s in particular need to complete the syllabus of learning to read and write. Pupils may, however, have a shorter and more intense day.

Looking at the emotional side of returning to school, Lynne van Dellen, the head of King David Primary School Sandton, spoke about how wearing masks or visors might have a negative impact on the well-being of children who aren’t used to doing so, and how they will have to get used to a teacher wearing a mask. She also emphasises the importance of not discriminating against children who can’t return.

Sheva Messias, the principal of King David Pre-Primary School Linksfield, says that systems have been put in place – such as engagement with a psychologist – to prepare children for what to expect. “Our main prerogative at this stage is to bring some sense of normality,” she said.

United Herzlia Schools in Cape Town released its “Back to School” plan on 27 May. “We are now entering the stage where online and face-to-face learning are blended. We have decided to amend our published school calendar by shortening the mid-year holiday by one week. The third term will commence on Monday, 6 July,” said the school’s management. It’s unsure if all grades will return on that date as it depends on government announcements.

What will be different is that pupils won’t be expected to wear school uniforms as clothes will need to be washed every day. No money will change hands on campus, and there will be no extra-murals. Upper primary, middle, and high-school parents won’t be allowed on campus.

Each family can choose whether to send their child back to school. “We will support your child irrespective of your decision,” said the schools’ management. If a parent chooses to keep their child home but then changes their mind, they need to give the school two days’ notice.

There will be one teaching programme delivered from the school that can be followed at home. If a pupil or staff member tests positive for COVID-19, the school won’t need to close, but the incident will be dealt with using World Health Organization risk-exposure guidelines.

At the time of going to print, Torah Academy and Yeshiva College weren’t yet able to share their plans for resuming school attendance.

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