As teachers flee or die, a new, even worse education crisis looms

Ideas

As teachers flee or die, a new, even worse education crisis looms

Replacing a professional teacher comes at a high cost, and we are losing many with vast experience

Columnist
Tholiwe Hlophe, left, and Skhumbuzo Mchunu - parents at Sobonakhona Secondary School at Umbumbulu in KwaZulu-Natal - disinfect a classroom.
PARENTS STEP IN Tholiwe Hlophe, left, and Skhumbuzo Mchunu - parents at Sobonakhona Secondary School at Umbumbulu in KwaZulu-Natal - disinfect a classroom.
Image: Sandile Ndlovu

There is a coming crisis in teacher supply that could wreak further havoc on an already crumbling school system. In South Africa and other parts of the world, teachers are making the difficult decision as to whether to return to school given the dangers posed to their own health and that of their families. The exact scale of the problem is difficult to quantify in part because of the uneven collection of data across the nine provinces and the suspicion that the data collected from the districts might have been sanitised to put a positive spin on things. Senior district officials in one province tell me that what they submit and what the department releases are two different things.

Even so, a report to parliament by the Gauteng department of education (July 28 2020) titled “Covid-19 Impact and Interventions” paints a bleak picture of a coming crisis in the classroom: who will teach your children? The first problem is the number of teachers applying for what is called “comorbidity concessions”, which came to 3,617 applications. That’s a lot of teachers, and the number is almost certainly an underestimation of potential applications “due to some district offices not being functional due to Covid-related closure” and the fact that this data reported on the situation three weeks ago. Not all the applications were approved, but the expected growth in applications will definitely impact on the availability of quality teachers in the classroom.

The teachers more likely to take an early exit are older teachers with vast amounts of experience; they will be difficult to replace once the final count of departing teachers is made. 

The second problem is that there are teachers who do not suffer from comorbidities but who are considering leaving the profession because of the risk of infection, illness and even death. These are very difficult calculations, especially for teachers who desperately need the paycheck to support and sustain their families; clearly those in more privileged circumstances will make the decision more easily. It is vital that the departments of education in the province keep close track of such early retirement data from two sides – those healthy teachers who request to leave early because of the vulnerabilities of age and those with comorbidities who are being offered early retirement options.

The loss of a professional teacher comes at a high cost. It takes four or more years to train a fully qualified teacher and many more years to develop the skills to teach competently at an advanced level. The teachers more likely to take an early exit are older teachers with vast amounts of experience; they will be difficult to replace once the final count of departing teachers is made.

In the meantime, teachers are becoming infected, falling ill and in some cases dying. In written replies to questions in the Western Cape provincial legislature (July 24 2020), the toll on teachers (and other staff) by education district is severe. For example, Metro Central (March 22-July 16) had 228 confirmed cases, 195 recoveries, three deaths, 30 active cases; and for Metro East in the same period, 381 confirmed cases, 313 recoveries, nine deaths and 59 active cases. As the region moves towards the peak of the infection, somewhere in October 2020, the number of dead teachers will sadly continue to increase as will those who depart early out of concern for their lives.

The substitution of teachers who die, remain at home or retire early has serious implications for education management. To begin with, there are the added financial costs to a government that was already in the process of limiting new teacher appointments before the lockdown. A high school geography teacher is replaced for the subject but foundation phase teachers require full replacement since they teach across the curriculum. Finding the right teacher, with expert knowledge in the subject, competence in teaching, and familiarity with the CAPS curriculum is difficult even under normal conditions. It will be much more of a challenge finding the right teacher as the pool of available and competent educators shrink.

We have been here before. In the 1990s the government “rationalised” teaching posts and offered “packages” as incentives for teachers to exit the hefty and unaffordable apartheid bureaucracy. Unfortunately, the teachers who stepped forward to accept those packages were often the most experienced and competent in the system. We are still suffering the consequences of that poorly managed decision.

Now, in a time of Covid, teachers around the world are doing their homework: if I stay, what are the chances of becoming infected and worse? It does not help that the workloads of teachers have escalated; everybody complains of much more administrative work than before the lockdown, coupled with the demands of teaching the smaller classes the same lessons and teaching those at school and those at home with no changes in compensation or relief. It is not what I signed up for, say so many teachers.

It is simply a matter of time before the full educational impact of teacher departures, dead or alive, is going to be felt in our schools.