Reopening of schools: Bold leadership and planning required

Reopening of schools: Bold leadership and planning required
While attending to the safety of teachers and learners, get the early grades back to school as quickly as possible in order to mitigate further learning losses, says the writer. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Nic Bothma)

The proposal by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga on 30 April that Grade 7 and Grade 12 learners should return to school from 1 June came after days of speculation.

Teachers and parents around the country have been kept on tenterhooks waiting for a government announcement on the reopening of schools amid the ongoing pandemic.

Aware of the current sensitivities, Minister Motshekga emphasised the breadth of her consultations on the matter. Teacher unions, school governing bodies, educational associations, the National Coronavirus Command Council and the public at large had all made inputs. Nevertheless, debate continued to rage across all sectors of society about the wisdom of reopening schools at this stage.

The SA Democratic Teachers’ Union, Sadtu, has produced a list of demands including reduced class sizes, disinfection, proper toilet facilities, social distancing, screening, and soap. The National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa, Naptosa, has insisted on a full risk assessment before reopening.

In a UJ/HSRC Covid-19 democracy survey, the views of respondents were emphatic. On the positive side, parents will certainly be relieved at the prospect of ending their home schooling responsibilities, usually under crowded and suboptimal conditions that are not conducive to ongoing education. Most (83%) of the respondents with children of school-going age are very concerned about the impact of Covid-19 on their children’s schooling. Only 11% are, moderately, not very or not at all concerned. The remaining 6% did not provide an answer.

Wealthier South Africans are less concerned about disruptions to schooling than their poorer counterparts. Almost nine in ten (87%) respondents in households with monthly incomes of less than R20,000 are very concerned, whereas this decreases substantially to only 52% of those earning more than R20,000.

There is a similar contrast of sentiment by social class when comparing the home situations of respondents. Residents of township houses or backyard shacks, with their typical spatial limitations, and likewise residents in rural areas, are appreciably more likely (84-87%), to be very concerned about the impact of the virus on the schooling of their children, compared to those living in suburban houses or flats (77%). These differences probably reflect the online or other educational resources, as well as the greater comfort, available to better-off homes.

The survey asked, “Do you have a message to send to the President?” It revealed a telling mix of motivations and concerns about the resumption of classes. The prime concern of some respondents was educational. “Hulle kan ma die skole oop maak al is dit net van Graad7 tot Graad12 asseblief is ve ons se toekoms en ons soek geleerind tyd asseblief.” (They should open the schools even if only Grade 7 to 12, please it’s for our future, we need learning.) Similarly, “Umbuzo wami kuthi ingane ngabe zibuyela nini ezikoleni?” (My question is when will children return to school?) This applied to tertiary education as well: “Wil baie graag weet wat gebeur met universiteit studente, veral die finale jaar studente?” (I really want to know what is happening with university students, especially the ones in their final year.)

The benefits of schooling are not only educational. More than a quarter (28%) of respondents said that they or members of their households have gone to bed hungry during the lockdown: “No school for the youth, no feeding scheme or food parcels for the poor including my household. A spike in essential needs at spaza shops.” So poorer households will appreciate that providing daytime meals for their children will again be supported, if phase-by-phase, and provided the DBE’s National School Nutrition Programme can be efficiently kick-started.

However, at the same time as supporting the resumption of schooling, parents are concerned about the safety of their children, and also their educators. Parents discern that proper preparations are essential: A black African (35-44 years) female from Orange Farm in Gauteng warned: “President please make sure that after the lockdown all schools are cleaned and sterilised before our kids go back to schools.” The preparations must extend to pupils and learners: A Soweto-based black African female (35-44 years) said: “Mr Ramaphosa please can you please make sure that our matric and their teachers to be checked as soon as possible so that they can get back to school.” And the protection must carry through during schooling: A black African (35-44 years) woman from Katlehong wrote: “Mr President can you please allow kids to go back to school next month, they are behind with their studies if it means they should wear face masks for protection.”

The concerns wisely extend beyond schooling itself. The Safer Schools organisation reports that more than 30% of learners do not walk to school. In crowded taxis, there will be potential exposure of learners to the general public. More than one in ten (11%) of the UJ/HSRC survey respondents had travelled in a taxi carrying the regular number of passengers, contravening restrictions on passenger numbers.

There is also realistic anxiety about the transmission of infection from young learners – most of whom are expected to experience the disease lightly – to older members of their households, some of whom, notably grandparents, will be very vulnerable.

“I understand leadership is hard but Mr President please don’t reopen schools; that is a disaster waiting to happen.” And, “Hi Mr President I think you doing a great job… thank you… however I think you should not allow the kids back at school.”

Whereas the survey response messages to the president before 29 April on balance favoured a return to school, responses since the DBE’s announcements about reopening have been mixed. The timing is a concern: For example, “Mr President is too risk for now to allow some institution like school, work to go back after u hv done that many people would be affected bcos of level 4.” And, “I strongly feel that the President should put a hold on opening schools till winter is over… it is going to be a disastrous move to open schools during the winter period.” It was even felt that “if needs be then the lockdown should be extended. Schools will resume next year… Do not take hasty decisions at all, do everything in your power to keep South Africans safe.”

Some felt the lockdown arrangements could be sustained: “Ngithi kungani kungabi abazali abalanda umsebenzi weskole ezikoleni weekly?” (I say why can’t parents download homework on a weekly basis?) But for others, this expedient has not been generally available: “Learning online is very difficult because we run out of data and the government isn’t supplying us with data and things like that.” And even if the technology is available, “Learning via WhatsApp is not working for me.”

Indeed the psychological impact on learners extends beyond the schooling itself: “I don’t see my friends… and I miss the life I had months ago before the corona outbreak.” Parents may worry that the consequences are dire: “Young kids starting to sell drugs and affiliating themselves with gangsterism because educational programmes cannot be implemented and there is no schooling available.”

This evidence from the survey, qualitative as well as quantitative, highlights the very difficult balance that Motshekga has to navigate, between the practical risks and the constitutional rights to education and health. She is acutely aware that saving the academic year cannot be at the cost of learners’ health and wellbeing. Following her broad consultations, she has both encouraged comprehensive catch-up plans, and developed standard operating procedures for the containment and management of Covid-19.

What other guidance is available to her? A just-published systematic review of empirical studies (Viner et al., 2020) in the influential journal Lancet Child and Adolescent Health is relevant. It assesses the extent to which school closures in China reduced the spread of Covid-19 in January 2020, and looks at other viral epidemics in previous years. Although not conclusive, the evidence suggests that the impact of school closures was marginal, and that other measures such as limiting the movement of learners between classrooms, and social distancing in general, were greater inhibitors of viral spread.

As we enter lockdown level 4, the key question becomes whether the Department of Basic Education will be able to make the necessary preparations for the partial opening of schools (Grades 7 and 12) on 1 June. Will it be feasible for the DBE to salvage the academic year and simultaneously avoid exacerbating the infection rate?

It is clearly impossible in the course of one month to address the historical problems that have lingered since democratisation, notably school water shortages, inadequate ablution facilities, vandalised infrastructure, and uneven delivery of textbooks. But can our respondents’ concerns be adequately allayed? Can hygiene and sanitation requirements be met? Can screening and testing protocols be implemented effectively? Can smaller class sizes be arranged?

Different levels of lockdown in different districts might add further complications if schools in districts with more infections remain closed, while those in low infection areas open. Schools within and around high-density townships and settlements (e.g. Alexandra, Khayelitsha, KwaMashu) might be affected.

Critical to the success of reopening will be the willing collaboration of the teaching community. Naturally, there will be alarm at the prospect of expanding the role of educators, already overworked and understaffed, to include responsibilities for matters of public health. The president’s bold leadership and provisions hitherto may encourage teachers and Motshekga to be equally bold. DM/MC

This is one of a series of articles by researchers from the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Social Change (CSC) and the Human Sciences Research Council’s Developmental, Capable and Ethical State division (DCES). Data comes from the online multilingual Covid-19 Democracy Survey. This can be undertaken, free of charge, by anybody in South Africa aged 18 or over with access to the internet. Go to: Results are weighted by race, age and education, making them broadly representative of the population. Phase 1 of the survey covers the days from 13-18 April, Phase 2 from 18-27 April, and Phase 3 from 27 April onwards. See HSRC summary report v1.pdf.The survey uses the #datafree Moya Messenger App on the #datafree biNu platform.

Stephen Rule is a Research Director in the Developmental, Capable and Ethical State (DCES) research division, HSRC. Yul Derek Davids is a Chief Research Specialist in the Developmental, Capable and Ethical State (DCES) research division, HSRC. Mark Orkin is an Associate Research Fellow in the Centre for Social Change at the University of Johannesburg, and a Visiting Professor in DPHRU, Wits University.


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