As of 18 March 2020, schools in South Africa have been closed in an attempt to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. On Tuesday 19 May 2020, minister of basic education Angie Motshekga confirmed that schools will reopen on 1 June 2020. She stated that the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) and cabinet have approved the reopening of schools as her department proposed. According to Motshekga: “Independent and public ordinary schools will open, even in the metropolitan areas. Every school must adhere to and observe the health and safety protocols that will be put in place. We will start with grades 7 and 12 and small schools. The other grades will follow in due course.”
Motshekga further stated that the Department of Basic Education has entered into an implementation protocol agreement with the Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation and Rand Water to ensure that no school goes without water. Furthermore, the school nutrition programme will be implemented for grade 7s and 12s, with food handlers being supplied with the required personal protective equipment, including gloves, aprons and cloth masks. According to Motshekga, COVID-19 essentials – such as masks, sanitisers and water – are being delivered ahead of the phased reopening of schools on 1 June, with schools being cleaned and prepared to host learners. She also stated that the Department of Basic Education is working alongside the Department of Transport to ensure that safety protocols are maintained in the transportation of students. Furthermore, school sports will not be permitted, as they would increase the chances of infection and undermine the government’s efforts to contain the coronavirus.
Children with special needs and disabilities who have physical, behavioural or learning difficulties are particularly vulnerable, as they require specialised, time-sensitive education and support. Concern has also been raised regarding the impact of masks on learners who rely on lip-reading due to hearing difficulties. Motshekga emphasised that the department is mindful of the needs of students with disabilities and is working with the provinces to ensure that special schools are adequately provided for in all the plans they have put together. In her statement, she noted that the department is aware that they need a different approach concerning special schools for children with disabilities, stating: “We are working with organisations who are advising us on the best way forward regarding the phased approach of the special schools. Provinces have put in place plans that will ensure that no child is compromised.”
Motshekga subsequently announced that no decision has been made on the reopening of early childhood development (ECD) centres, stating that the Department of Basic Education is working on the matter together with the Department of Social Development in order to ensure they maintain the delicate balance between allowing ECD centres to operate, and the safety and health of the children and their caregivers.
The announcement of schools reopening has been met with much contention by parents, teachers and learners. Teachers’ unions have expressed their concern and their dissatisfaction with the Department of Basic Education’s level of preparation to ensure that both teachers and learners will be safe when returning to school. The National Teachers Union (NATU) and the Professional Educators’ Union (PEU) have criticised the idea of schools opening on 1 June, labelling it as “irresponsible”, as it will exacerbate the education inequalities in the country. The Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (Fedsas) is of the opinion that the department should merely provide a framework on how schools should reopen in a safe manner, while leaving school governing bodies to determine what would work best for their schools. However, this suggestion could potentially disadvantage learners based on their school, and could also result in different schools operating weeks or months ahead of others, which would consequently further exacerbate education inequalities.
CEO of Fedsas Paul Colditz has stated that options for reopening schools in a manner that will limit the spread of COVID-19 include: (a) half of the pupils attending school one week, and the other half the next, and (b) half of a grade going to school in the morning, and the other half in the afternoon.
Despite parents struggling to balance working from home and ensuring that their children’s educational needs are met, many are reluctant to send their kids back to school, fearing that the risk of exposing their children to infection is not worth the benefits. While some may be fortunate enough to be able to homeschool their children for the rest of the year, others are not. According to the South African Schools Act, parents and guardians are legally obligated to have children between the ages of 7 and 15 attend school. In the event that parents decide to homeschool their children, they need to ensure that their children are enrolled for homeschooling and have the necessary educational material and learning tools available to proceed adequately with their education. Parents are urged to gain knowledge of the risks, safety measures and readiness of their children’s schools when deciding what will be best for their children.
Along with the health and educational concerns, parents should also remain mindful of their contractual responsibility towards the school in terms of paying school fees. In the middle of a global pandemic and a recession, many parents may be struggling to pay school fees. Parents who are struggling financially are advised to enquire about whether they qualify for an exemption from school fees or try to make an alternative arrangement with the school.
In light of the announcement, teachers were expected to report for duty on Monday 25 May 2020. It was a growing concern that teachers and pupils would be at risk of contracting COVID-19 should they return to schools on 1 June. While there has been much concern around the safety of children in schools, little thought has been given to the teachers, who would be risking their lives every day that they step into their classrooms. Many teachers have aired their grievances with the plan going forward, stating that they do not feel comfortable returning to school, and that they feel that the duty to uphold safety precautions will be placed largely on them, and that this will be an undue burden on their part. Furthermore, the current situation puts teachers with comorbidities in a very compromising position. In her statement, Motshekga stressed that the Department of Basic Education is working with health professionals who have profiled the sector and will be issuing guidelines on how to manage school staff and pupils with comorbidities.
While some are concerned about the health risks of schools opening, others are concerned about the learners’ development that is being stunted, and the impact that the lost time may have on the learners’ education. Umalusi and the Department of Basic Education have been given the difficult task of ensuring that the class of 2020’s matric examinations meet the required standards, and that matriculants of 2020 have the same knowledge as previous years’ learners. Cutting the curriculum could potentially give a stigma to the class of 2020 and negatively impact the level of education they receive in comparison with previous years’ learners. However, Motshekga stated that a trimmed curriculum will be sent to schools for planning purposes, and is being developed on a continual basis. If learners return to school on 1 June, they will have lost 42 schooling days. However, the lost days can be made up if the June and September holidays are reduced and the fourth term is extended. While a reduction in the school holidays is not ideal, it is nonetheless necessary and will hopefully enable learners to complete the academic year. According to Motshekga, the revised school calendar, indicating opening and closing dates and the school holidays in between, will soon be gazetted.
While some provinces may be ready to open schools, others may not be as equipped. Many provinces fear that they may not be able to deliver the required supplies to all schools by the end of May, as they have been struggling with the delivery of sanitisation supplies. While the Department of Basic Education is optimistic that their plan will be effective, doubt continues to lurk in the minds of many. The question remains: are we sending children to school to learn, or to die?