Overcrowded classrooms are a serious threat to learners’ health

James Masango MPL

Provincial Chief Whip of the Official Opposition

As Mpumalanga continues to be afflicted by education problems – such as the lack of infrastructure and teachers – learners in the province continue to bear the brunt of these challenges. Recent reports show that besides setbacks in individual and collective academic performances, learners crammed into classrooms are also exposed to severe health risks.

According to doctors at the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre, learners in overcrowded and poorly ventilated classrooms are at a higher risk of contracting TB – one of the leading causes of death in children, teenagers and adults in Mpumalanga. These medical professionals claim that children in such an environment are more vulnerable to indoor air pollutants because children breathe more relative to their body weight and their bodies are less able to cope with toxins.

The doctors are so alarmed with the findings that they have prompted education rights group, Equal Education, to declare the situation a public health emergency so that it is addressed as a matter of urgency.

This information is especially troubling to Mpumalanga where the education system has been under pressure for years due to lack of infrastructure and teachers, with survey by the DA showing that the learner to teacher ratio ranges anything from 35 and 90 learners per teacher.

Our investigations also show that the learner school ratio increased from 479 in 2005 to 569 in 2012 – far higher than the national ratio of 49. Furthermore, we’ve also found that many rural schools have multi-grade classrooms (where two or more teachers teach two or more different grades in the same classroom) bringing the number of children within some classrooms to 90.

What makes this matter even more alarming is that Mpumalanga seems to be losing the battle against TB. The latest statistics show that the number of case findings increased to 24 452 in 2011 from 23 312 in 2010. More terrifying yet is that young children are at the highest risk as TB is the number one cause of death of children under the age of 5.

In view of this, the DA will submit written questions to the MECs of education and health, to determine whether they have knowledge of these findings, as well as the exact state of overcrowding in schools. We will also request an explanation as to how and when this dire problem will be addressed.

According to the Bill of Rights, every child has a right to basic education in a safe environment, and in a DA-led government this right would be met through the implementation of the DA’s success plan for schools. This plan provides not only provides for much-needed additional infrastructure and teachers, but also the reintroduction of school nurse visits – who would be able to detect serious health problems in learners and offer advice or medicate accordingly.

Children are the future, and their well-being is vital for this province’s social and economic development. Let’s protect them and honour their rights for the sake of generations to come.