Heathfield High School. Picture: Sisonke Mlamla/Cape Argus
Heathfield High School. Picture: Sisonke Mlamla/Cape Argus

Academics voice their support of Heathfield High School Principal Wesley Neumann

By Opinion Time of article published May 6, 2021

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The Covid-19 pandemic has confronted us with numerous, daunting challenges we have never encountered before.

School education has been at the forefront of responses to the pandemic.

The sector has had to make hard life-and-death decisions about the health and safety of our school communities – our students, staff, and parents.

In mid-2020, after an initial period of complete lockdown, schools and school authorities in the Western Cape and other provinces grappled with the question of the return of students and teachers to classrooms – do we return at all?

Parents, teachers and learners were confronted with uncertainty amid the risk of infection, illness and death.

These were dilemmas being faced all over the country and, indeed, the world.

Teachers and provincial education authorities agreed that we need to be guided by the best scientific advice.

Scientists though were themselves divided and uncertain about the wisdom of the re-opening of schools or the efficacy of staggering teaching days, where only certain grades attended school on a particular day.

In this climate of concern and uncertainty, the national Department of Education instructed schools to be re-opened on 1 and 8 June 2020.

Heathfield High School consulted parents, teachers, students and the school governing body about what they thought the best course of action would be.

Parents strongly voiced their concern about returning to school in school circumstances that could not guarantee the necessary health and sanitation conditions of students and teachers for a safe return, and also then risking infection back home.

Following consultations, the SGB recommended parents keep their children at home.

Teachers not at risk were at school and the few students who attended were kept at school.

In its objection to the unilateral instruction to return to school, Heathfield High was not alone.

Its stand was supported by more than 100 principals in Cape Town.

The decision not to return to school on the designated date was a collective decision.

Agreeing with the need to safeguard his learners and teachers, Mr Wesley Neumann, the school principal, adhered to this decision.

Mr Neumann was subsequently unfairly charged with misconduct for implementing the SGB’s collective decision.

This perceived “challenge” to the authority of the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) led to departmental disciplinary measures instituted against Mr Neumann.

In September 2020, he was charged by on 12 counts of alleged “insolent behaviour” towards Brian Schreuder, WCED head at the time.

We believe these charges and the ongoing and protracted disciplinary hearing are grossly unfair, unjust and selective.

They detract from efforts to create an environment at the school conducive to learning, teaching and administration.

In these uncertain and unprecedented times, the matter of school attendance should be resolved through collaborative and ongoing discussion and decision-making in the interest of the school’s learners.

Wesley Neumann should be applauded, not punished for his engagement with the school community about the safest way forward at that difficult time.

The fact that the disciplinary hearing has had no less than 16 sittings to date seems to indicate that the WCED is struggling to make the charges stick.

In addition, the presiding officer of the hearing refused to have a teacher witness testify against the WCED.

A member of the Labour Relations Department of WCED visited this teacher at his home and claimed the WCED would offer him a post if he testified against Mr Neumann.

The teacher refused to do this, and this blatant act of bribery has been reported to the police.

We call on the WCED to drop these punitive, ill-considered and illegitimate charges against Mr Neumann.

We also call on all fellow academics to support this demand.

We are concerned about the negative impact this action has on the functioning of the school, the education of students, the morale of the teachers and the stress on the parent body.

As an educator who has a deep concern for the well-being of his students and teachers, Mr Neumann should be allowed to do what he does best.

That is, to lead a reputable school that recently celebrated 60 years of sterling work and produced many prominent members of our society.

Let us work together and debate, not discipline and punish.

Signatories

Allan Zinn, Nelson Mandela University

Anthony Staak, ex-CPUT

Asanda Benya, UCT

Aslam Fataar, Stellenbosch University (SU)

Azeem Badroodien, UCT

Charles Thomas, CPUT

Crain Soudien, Human Sciences Research Council

Crystal Jannecke, Cornerstone Institute

Cecelia Jacobs, SU

Denise Zinn, Nelson Mandela University

Dhiru Gihwala, ex-CPUT

Doria Daniels, SU

Faaiz Gierdien, SU

Felicity Titus, ex-CPUT

Gonda Perez, ex-UCT

Grant Andrews, Wits university

Greg Hussey, ex-UCT

Indran Pathar, University of KwaZulu-Natal

Kenneth Salo, University of Illinois, USA

Leigh-Ann Naidoo, UCT

Lesley Le Grange, SU

Marian Jacobs, ex-UCT

Mark Marais, CPUT

Matilda Smith, Nelson Mandela University

Maureen Robinson, SU

Merle McOmbring Hodges, ex-CPUT

Najwa Norodien-Fataar, CPUT

Nazeem Edwards, SU

Nicole Wessels, CPUT

Noel Daniels, Cornerstone Institute

Norman Jacobs, ex-CPUT

Nuraan Davids, SU

Omar Esau, SU

Rafiq Omar, ex-UWC

Ronelle Carolissen, SU

Ruchi Chaturvedi, UCT

Rudi Buys, Cornerstone Institute

Salim Valley, University of Johannesburg

Shafika Isaacs, University of Johannesburg

Sharon Prince, UCT

Shaun Viljoen, SU

Stephen Langtree, Cornerstone Institute

Usuf Chikte, ex-Stellenbosch University

Vuyokazi Nomlomo, University of Zululand

Wendy Staak, UWC

Yusef Waghid, SU

Yusuf Sayed, CPUT

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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