Makhanda starts Covid-19 measures*

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  • Schools, tertiary institutions close
  • University trains staff for online education
  • UPM raises red flag over Covid-19 water outage risk
  • CEO announces first fully digital National Arts Festival
  • Scifest Africa postponed to September
  • Sport, cultural activities on hold

*The headline originally said “lockdown”  – intended as a general description of actions taken; however in the context of the levels of official Covid-19 management protocols as per the National Department of Health this was the wrong term to use.

Public and independent schools in Makhanda, Rhodes University and the Eastcape Midlands College closed this week and sporting, cultural and academic events and meetings have been cancelled or postponed across the town. This is in line with President Cyril Ramaphosa’s declaration on Sunday 15 March of a National State of Disaster and regulations to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus, Covid-19. Meanwhile civil society organisations have expressed concern about vulnerable sections of the town’s population, and the added risk in areas without a reliable water supply. And the National Arts Festival, a crucial annual boost to the regional and local economy, will make history by going entirely digital this year.

Schools have hastily compiled home learning materials for around 15 000 children from public schools and a further 2000 from independent schools in Makhanda, and the University has initiated training for lecturers in remote teaching. This comes as the town joins the rest of the country in preparing for an extended Easter break, and a possible longer lockdown as the global Covid-19 pandemic starts to make its mark on South Africa. As of Thursday night, 150 cases had been identified in South Africa and no deaths had been reported (sacoronavirus.co.za). Worldwide, there were 207 855 confirmed cases in 166 countries or territories, with 8 648 deaths reported (who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019).

Online education plans

Rhodes University this week initiated a series of training workshops for academic staff on using online resources for teaching around 7000 students affected by the early autumn recess. While supervisors’ one-on-one meetings with postgraduate students could continue, no face to face lectures, tutorials, seminars or laboratory practicals would be held, Vice Chancellor Dr Sizwe Mabizela said in an email to staff and students. Students were instructed to vacate residences. NSFAS and other financial aid and bursary allowances would be paid this week.

Staff, meanwhile, were instructed to prepare teaching material and methodology appropriate for online education in preparation for the start of term 2.

Spokesperson for Eastcape Midlands College Elmari van der Merwe told Grocott’s Mail, “As per communication from Director General: Higher Education and Training campuses will be closed, but central/admin offices will continue working.”

Eastcape Midlands College campuses would re-open on 14 April unless otherwise indicated by the Department of Higher Education and Training, Van der Merwe said. EMC has a total of 5000 students at four campuses – two in Uitenhage, one in Graaff-Reinet and one in Makhanda.

Nationally, the Post Schooling Education and Training System (PSET) consists of around 2.5 million students and staff, according to Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Blade Nzimande. Nzimande on Tuesday met with Universities South Africa (USAf), the South African College Principals Organisation (SACPO), and the South African Students Union (SAUS) to agree on a common national Protocol and Management Plan across the sector.

The South African Students Congress (Sasco) strongly opposed the evacuation of students from residences, accusing the government and university heads of flouting the principles of Covid-19 containment by promoting “mass travelling”. “The rationale of sending possibly infected students back to areas which have no recorded infections is absurd,” said Bamanye Matiwane Sasco President. “We strongly believe that containing students within residences is the most rational decision to make.” Sasco instead called for increased sanitation measures in residences.

Mitigate loss of teaching time

Public schools were due to close this Friday and re-open on 31 March for what is usually a 10-day Easter vacation. Instead learners had their last day on Wednesday, staff on Friday 20 March. As things stand, public schools are set to re-open on Wednesday 15 April.

Independent schools, which also closed this week, operate on three longer terms. St Andrew’s College, St Andrew’s Prep and the Diocesan School for Girls were due to close on 8 April, returning 5 May. No return date was confirmed in a joint letter to parents. “Communication will follow in due course with regards to distance learning arrangements,” the three principals said. “Boarding will be available until every pupil has been able to travel. We will be writing to you… to provide details as to how we intended to mitigate the loss of term time as a result of these necessary measures.”

Kingswood College was to have closed on 3 April and reopen on 29 April. “We support the President in urging all citizens to remain calm, stay informed and take the necessary precautions to prevent the spread of the virus,” head Colleen Vassiliou said. “We… support the measure to ensure families can be at home until more clarity is obtained about the way forward… More details will be communicated to our Kingswood families in due course.”

Along with links to reliable information on the global pandemic, several principals shared links to online learning resources schools hastily compiled projects and other work to complete during the extended vacation.

“We are hoping to keep our educational program alive, by either starting school two weeks early or by allowing our pupils to learn via e-learning,” Vassiliou said.

“Learners will receive projects, tasks and other academic activities, to complete during the holidays,” Principal Joubert Retief told PJ Olivier parents. Retief and Graeme College Principal Kevin Watson shared links to various e-learning sites.

“Our staff are extremely concerned about the impact on our academic programme and we are already putting together tasks and plans for the learners to work through over the holiday period,” Watson said.

In an emailed newsletter on Monday, Watson told parents, “This will, no doubt, have a serious and negative effect on the economy, and also put severe strain on parents with regard to day care for their children. The reality, however, is that there is no other option, as countries across the world are all struggling with the same issues. This is a global pandemic, and we all need to work through it together.”

Schools cancelled or postponed sport and other extracurricular activities along with tours and matches.

The Rhodes University based Centre for Social Development (CSD) this week compiled early childhood development (ECD) resources for people caring for younger children at home over this extended break. Grocott’s Mail is publishing these in print and online.

 

How will school closures affect Makhanda schools?

Around 15 000 children attend public schools in Makhanda. These learners come from a broad variety of socio-economic backgrounds, ranging from well-resourced middle class homes to the town’s poorest, whose children attend no-fee schools.

Concerns about the academic programme run across the board. In addition, principals of no-fee schools have expressed concern about their learners’ physical welfare during this extended vacation.

Principal of Ntsika Secondary, Madeleine Schoeman, said catching up on two weeks’ work would be “difficult but not impossible”.

“If [the June exam]dates remain unchanged then it would be difficult but not impossible,” Schoeman said. “Classes will continue into the late afternoon and into evening with Grade 12s.

The problem is very tired learners and staff,” Schoeman said.

Closing schools for an extra six weeks would be disastrous.

Speaking to Grocott’s Mail before the early extended Easter break was announced, Schoeman said, “It is quite difficult to be proactive in this case as it would depend on how authorities deal with it [whether it is]a total lock-down and ban on large gatherings…”

Few of the school’s learners had access to internet and/or sufficient data, Schoeman said. “However, we will make a plan.”

Makanaskop Primary serves more than 500 children, many of whom are from informal settlements on the far north-eastern edge of Makhanda. Principal Mkhosi Williams says many come from eNkanini and Transit Camp.

“The others are from Extension 9, Extension 8 and Extension 10,” Willliams told Grocott’s Mail.

“A lot of those children some to school for the food,” he said. “For many of them the school meal we provide is the only meal of the day.”

Fortunately a project based at Assumption Development Centre had, together with the school, identified 15 of their most vulnerable children and supplied meals for them, even during school holidays.

Spokesperson for the Department of Social Development in the Eastern Cape Gcobani Maswani said they were aware of this concern and were awaiting advice from the national Department.

“Our approach has been to ensure adequate nutrition for children while they are attending school. But now they will be with their families,” Maswani said. “There have been a number of engagements on this and we are awaiting a directive that will come from the departments of health, education and social development.”

 

Vulnerable residents

Around 14 members of the Unemployed People’s Movement on Wednesday occupied the Council Chamber of the City Hall, warning of the dire effect that an outbreak of Covid-19 would have in Makana Municipality.

In a statement issued yesterday, the organisation’s chairperson Sikhumbuzo Soxujwa said, “The State President’s COVID19 declaration and inter-ministerial plans are welcome, but have nothing concrete on defending black working class communities in the crisis. Many of these communities suffer under the legacy of apartheid and the inequalities of the present. Many have no reliable water supplies, yet are asked to wash regularly…   Hand-sanitisers and immunity boosters are a luxury.”

Of particular concern were recent prolonged water outages in Alicedale. The UPM said they would be launching an urgent court application to force Makana Municipality to provide water for residents, particularly the Alicedale community.

“Civil society must support and defend the working class communities and demand accountability from municipalities to make sure those that need help the most, indeed receive education and material help,” the organisation said. “The business sector must… prioritise the health of people… This is no longer a matter of life and death.  It is a matter of death for the residents of Makana Municipality,” Soxujwa said.

The organisation came to the City Hall to demand water for Alicedale residents, who had experienced outages over the past week.

Grocott’s Mail spoke to Municipal Manager Moppo Mene afterwards. He said dam levels in Alicedale were low but that the problem of getting water to residents had since been resolved.

The UPM had also complained about water outages in FIngo Village, Mene said.

“There is still confusion about the two days on, one day off rationing regime,” Mene said. “We agreed that this needs to be better communicated.”

Minimise retrenchments

Meanwhile the Grahamstown Business Forum, Grahamstown Residents Association, Hospitality Guild along with Makana Tourism met this week, with similar concerns for vulnerable people, including social grants recipients queueing on grant day.

GBF Chairperson Richard Gaybba said they would engage with the municipality to assess their response to Covid-19.

“We also need to see if there are ways of reducing fixed costs for business,” Gaybba said. “It’s important to minimise retrenchments and short pay.”

Co-ordination on event planning going forward would also be important.

 

The National Arts Festival and Scifest

The 2020 National Arts Festival would go down in history as its first ever virtual edition, the organisation announced this week. Staging a virtual Festival is the organisers’ response to Covid-19.

“From 25 June to 5 July 2020, the National Arts Festival will be going completely virtual for the full 11 days of amazing,” CEO Monica Newton announced.

Scifest Africa will now take place in Makhanda from 9 to 15 September 2020.

Scifest Africa 2020 postponed

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