In an open letter, the principal of Aloe High school, Envil Wertheim, outlines why he believes that being back at school during a pandemic is not working. 

Learners back at schools is not working. My name is Envil Wertheim and I am the principal of Aloe High School, a school in Mitchells Plain.

We are considered to be a big school as we have in excess of 1 000 learners. 

Wednesday was 1 July, exactly a month since we welcomed back our matrics.

Remember the fiasco of 1 and 8 June and how the Western Cape was “ready”? And prior to that how they were “ready” to welcome back principals and support staff, then SMTs and subsequently entire staffs.

The truth is, we were never ready; we are still not ready as we prepare to phase in the next grades next week.

Let me explain why it is that I am of this opinion: Late Wednesday afternoon, one of my teachers, who has been in isolation because she had taken a test (she had presented with symptoms), informed me that she is Covid-19 positive. This is the third positive case among my educators in as many weeks. We have a Covid-19 file: Guidelines A-E, further guidelines F-G and one or two others.

Not badly written, one could even say, well-thought-out.

But here’s the thing – these guidelines are theoretical scenarios, written far away from the coalface of this drama, behind desks in plush offices.

Coalface

This is what really happens at the coalface that we, as teachers, have to deal with and principals have to manage: I have 31 educators.

From last week Wednesday until this week Wednesday, I had an average of 11 teachers absent every day – two are ill (Covid-19 unrelated), two were Covid-19 positive and three are on comorbidity concession, where they are supposed to work from home.

The others were in varying phases of self-isolation, either because they had been in close contact with a Covid-19 positive person or they, themselves, are isolating because they had gone for tests.

Now, as the manager, one is placed in the unenviable position of trying to still someone’s anxiety while trying to convince them that what they had actually experienced was “casual” contact as opposed to “close” contact. This you do while you have this ever-present nagging voice in the back of your head saying, “what if?”.

Still further at the back of my head, I have another nagging voice which drowns out the first one, and that voice is saying, “You can’t lose too many teachers because a matric curriculum has to be covered”.

The teacher, who I tried to convince, is still anxious and phones the hotline, which is manned by a fourth-year medical student, who errs on the side of caution and, rightfully so, tells the educator to self-isolate.

I can’t argue with that, but there goes another teacher, and this is how you arrive at 11 teachers absent every day.

Soon my matric English department is decimated and I’m down to “subbing” the “sub”.

I can’t throw a Grade 10 English teacher into the fray because she has never read Life of Pi, the English novel the matrics are studying.

So there goes the idea that, at this time, all teachers should be involved in teaching the matrics; both my matric history teachers are in isolation.

What now?

I’m sure that some district official will provide me with some theoretical solution to my problem… But, practically, it doesn’t work.

Covid-19 spike 

Is it coincidence that, with the return of learners, I am suddenly having a spike in Covid-19 positive cases among my educators?

Let’s speak about attendance: I have 223 matriculants. 

My average attendance has been at 58%, which is about 130 learners.

The day after learners got wind that two of the educators had tested positive, 24 showed up. On Thursday, we were up to 110 again, but what do you think is going to happen when learners find out that another one of my educators has tested positive? They are not stupid.

They can see when teachers are absent. What should I do? Keep it quiet. Hush-hush? And how do I respond to matric learners when they say: “Sir, you want us to come to school, but your teachers are scared to be here?”

And guess who is going to be blamed at the end of the year when our matric results are poor?

Meanwhile, on the other side of the tracks, at these affluent schools, the ones with the tennis courts and swimming pools, it is business as usual.

Attendance is at 90%, if not 100%. Why is that, do you think? Could the reason possibly be found in the fact that, for the same number of learners, you have double my staff because you can afford it and so can mitigate staff absence better?

Or could it be that your learners are generally dropped at school by their rich parents in their luxury sedans and don’t have to contend with the dangers of public transport, which my learners are exposed to?

Or could it be that during Level 5 and 4 of the lockdown your learners and their families could really hunker down in their spacious homes, in their leafy suburbs, and practice social distancing the way it was meant to be practiced – because the grocery cupboards and the deep freezer was stocked up – while my learners could not do this because they live in their shacks and indigent homes where social distancing is but a pipe dream?

But, at the end of this year, you will be held up as “institutions of excellence”, while mine will be an “underperforming” school.

Attention-seeking 

Debbie Schafer, the minister for education in the province, will dismiss me as a “social media attention-seeker”.

By way of a response, let me say this: If that is how you wish to label me, by all means do that. And, perhaps yes, I do seek attention.

I seek to bring attention to this: Learners returning to school is not working!

Let me also say this, ma’am: You cannot corner the market on the media narrative (via your press releases through mainstream media) and then cry foul when others use social media to counter what you propagate to be fact and truth. We do not have the clout that your office and title afford you and, with it, the ready access to print and audio–visual media. 

Because you disregard us and our voices so readily, we have to resort to this form of media when we wish to speak truth to power. You are power, after all, ma’am – and this is me attempting to speak truth to you.

I am currently reading Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead, a gift from my manager. This is what she says: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…”

So ma’am, stop criticising these school leaders and teachers who dare to disagree with you. We are in the “arena”; we deal with this, while you sit in your plush office, writing policies.

By all accounts, the MEC and the HOD are good, hardworking folk. I have also listened to them enough times to know that they are highly intelligent people. But here’s the thing: They do not get it.

They cannot begin, no matter how hard they try, to understand the difficulties and plethora of challenges attached to teaching in and managing wholly under-resourced schools.

They cannot hope to understand because all their lives they’ve experienced privilege… grew up privileged, attended privileged schools. And now still live privileged, protected lives. It is not their fault. It is…what it is.

The problem, though, is: These people are policy makers and they make policy for our schools, whose learner reality they do not understand; whose parents’ reality they do not understand; whose struggle and poverty they can never hope to understand.

– Envil Wertheim, is the principal of Aloe High school.

** This open letter has been shortened. 

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