With schools reopening this week, the Limpopo Department of Education has already vaccinated a total of 73 609 teachers and support staff against COVID-19, but questions remain about how the vaccinated and the unvaccinated groups should interact with one another at schools.

Teachers’ unions and a learner representative organisation interviewed by Health-e News agreed that while the right to confidentiality remains, joint efforts by both the vaccinated and unvaccinated groups are needed to ensure that the chain of COVID-19 infections is broken.

South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) provincial secretary Sowell Tjebane said members have a right to refuse the vaccine in line with guidelines issued by the Departments of Health, Education and Labour, as well as in accordance with employment guidelines.

Teachers’ right to dismiss

“Conscientious objectors may be excused, but we should also be mindful of the case law developing that says employers may charge and dismiss employees who knowingly infect other people in the workplace. On the other hand, being vaccinated is not a 100% guarantee against future infections.

“In the workplace, all workers must still follow non-pharmaceutical health guidelines like sanitising, washing of hands, wearing face masks and social distancing to curb the spread of infections,” explained Tjebane.

He added that it was a constitutional right of every South African to maintain confidentiality in terms of their health status. “We believe that in the absence of clear guidelines on whether vaccinating should be notifiable or not, the law as it stands still applies on the matter.”

Sharing information

The union has established the SADTU COVID-19 Nerve Centre that connects its branches countrywide for advocacy and awareness about the impact of the pandemic. This nerve centre also shares information on health and safety measures to its members.

“Eminent scientists and doctors in the field of virology are from time to time invited to make presentations, which are posted on social media platforms to educate our members. Even views of dissident doctors are taken on board to give members a wider perspective on all COVID-19 issues through this nerve centre,” Tjebane said.

Professional Educators Union (PEU) also noted that the right of vaccination disclosure remains subject to confidentiality and that teachers in their personal capacity have the right to make a choice about whether to receive the jab.

Encouraging teachers

“PEU has taken a decision to encourage teachers to be vaccinated, following the national scientific study about approved vaccines. But remember that vaccinations do necessarily prevent infections, and those who get the vaccine still need to share working spaces with the non-vaccinated colleagues. It is important that they adhere to COVID-19 protocols,” said Mosadi Sekwadi, the provincial secretary of the union.

“Our members, as well as others, who engage with learners on a daily basis are encouraged to get the vaccine and continue to follow COVID-19 protocols as advised by the Department of Health,” she said.

The Congress of SA Students (COSAS) had been calling for the vaccination of all teachers, support staff and students at tertiary institutions relying on sources that suggest the virus mainly infects older people.

However, COSAS provincial secretary Sello Mahladisha, said that new information has since emerged.

“We are now seeing young people and learners being infected by this virus. That is why the Department of Education should vaccinate everyone – learners, teachers, grannies selling food at schools, cooks, grandfathers, grandmothers and all those who transport learners via scholar transport,” Mahladisha said.

Disclosing COVID-19 status

The Limpopo Department of Education stated that while it respects an individual’s right to be vaccinated or not, disclosing one’s COVID-19 status remains crucial.

“We continue to stress the importance of disclosure by our learners, educators and support staff. This will enable the department to go through our standard operating procedure that includes getting the Department of Health to come in for contact tracing, quarantine, testing and isolation. This will become difficult if someone chooses not to disclose their status,” said provincial education department spokesperson Tidimalo Chuene.

The department would ensure that schools have access to essentials such as water, sanitisers, thermometers and screeners. “The use of non-pharmaceutical measures is encouraged for all, including those who are hesitant to get vaccinated, as the best defence against the coronavirus,” added Chuene.

University on board

Meanwhile, University of Limpopo (UL) Vice-Chancellor Professor Mahlo Mokgalong has encouraged students, staff and neighbouring communities to get vaccinated as a vaccination site was opened at the university last week.

Mokgalong said the university has joined forces with health authorities to help Limpopo achieve population immunity against COVID-19 by October this year. Sixty vaccinators, mostly final year nursing students from the university, were deployed to vaccination sites across the province last week.

Limpopo is ranked fifth amongst the top regions with high infection rates amid the country’s third wave of the pandemic, according to Health MEC Dr Phophi Ramathuba. – Health-e News.