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South Africa teachers’ union urges staff to defy return-to-work order

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Union says schools do not have the protective gear to keep educators and pupils safe when the economy reopens on Monday.

South African teachers’ unions and governing associations urged their staff on Friday to defy a government order to return to school next week, saying schools did not yet have personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep educators and pupils safe.

Africa’s most industrialized state will reopen its economy on June 1, after two months of lockdown that deepened a recession and left millions jobless. President Cyril Ramaphosa imposed the lockdown to prevent a COVID-19 epidemic on the kind of scale that has devastated Western nations.

The country has had more than 27,000 confirmed cases but only 577 deaths from COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said last week that schools would reopen, but only for grades 7 and 12, the last years of primary and secondary school, respectively.

“The education system … is not ready for the reopening of schools. If the PPE (protective equipment such as masks and hand sanitiser) have not been delivered by now, chances are slim that all schools will have them on Monday,” the joint statement said.

“We therefore call on all schools … not to reopen until the non-negotiables have been delivered.”

Motshekga has urged the teachers’ unions not to obstruct those who want to go back to school.

On Monday, South Africa’s economy will mostly return to full capacity, as it moves to “level three” lockdown, lifting a curfew, a restriction on outdoor exercise and a ban on alcohol sales in addition to partly reopening schools.

Many of South Africa’s government schools are in poor shape, especially in rural areas, and analysts say a quarter of them have no running water – making handwashing nearly impossible.

South Africa’s state-run Human Rights Commission on Friday also urged the government to reconsider its decision to start opening schools until they are better prepared.

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