Back to school, or not?

Western, Cape South Africa. Classroom scene. (Photo: Unknown)

Teachers, parents and educationists are keen to get children back into classrooms — especially younger ones, who are the lowest risk sector in terms of coronavirus infection. Is the government listening?

Microkids Nursery School, a tiny pre-school in the heart of Greymont in Johannesburg, had operated for 51 years without being forced to close its doors — until 14 March and the start of the compulsory lockdown due to Covid-19.

Usually, the sound of children’s voices resounds around the neighbourhood through the day and, for parents who entrust their children to the care of the teachers and helpers, the preschool is a Godsend. It is open from 6am to 6pm on weekdays and during normal school holidays and only closes for the Christmas break.

The school caters for children aged from three months to seven years in a community made up of both higher-income and low-income families. 

Current enrollment is 95 and there are 12 teachers, assistants and support staff.

Although it is registered with the Department of Education it receives no government subsidies. Salaries are paid from school fees.

“We’ve applied for Unemployment Insurance Fund support and relief through the bank. We’ve managed to pay staff salaries, but this month will be the first month we will not be able to pay full salaries,” says owner Regina Talu.

“I will not lose my school due to this coronavirus,” vows Talu. “We’ve faced other pandemics in the past. When the Aids pandemic happened we had to learn and teach our staff how to handle it. When the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) pandemic happened I was here and we survived it. The coronavirus is going to be around for a long time. We all have to learn to live with it and just be prepared.”

Talu and her daughter Christine Jones, the principal, support the growing call for schools to reopen, especially for younger children.  

They have been trying to help parents keep their children entertained and educated through WhatsApp.

“We really feel for the parents, a lot of them have lost their jobs,” says Jones. “Parents have been asking why they must pay for a service (school fees) that they are not getting. It’s also hard for our children; they need to be with other kids and they need to be in classrooms to learn.

“Moms and dads are trying but are really not qualified teachers. We are trying our best to help parents through our WhatsApp group, but most kids don’t have access to the internet and a lot of parents can’t afford to buy data,” she adds.

Support for the call to reopen schools, especially for younger grades, has come from Dr Nic Spaull, senior research fellow at the Research on Socioeconomic Policy (RESEP) group at Stellenbosch University.

In a report released on 8 May, Spaull points out that children under 10 are the least susceptible to Covid-19 and they should be the first to return to school.

“The aim of this policy brief has been to summarise some of the emerging international evidence,” writes Spaull. “The latest evidence suggests that, by allowing the youngest children to go back first, policymakers are putting teachers and parents at lower risk than if high school learners went back to school first.”

The report specifies that:

  • there is consistent global evidence that children are less likely to catch Covid-19 or get severely ill; and they almost never die from it;
  • children aged 0-10 years old are considerably less likely than adults to get infected, either from each other or from adults; and
  • children in this age group are less likely to transmit the virus even when infected.

The report states that it is difficult to answer questions about whether children are learning much during lockdown, “but, given what we know about learning losses during holiday periods, the lack of access to technology and educational materials at home for the poorest 70% of South African children, and the lack of preparation for distance-learning before the lockdown started, the short answer to this question is no”.

Spaull continues: “If one is realistic, for the poorest 80% of learners in South Africa, there is virtually no curricular learning that is taking place during lockdown.

“As the Department of Basic Education considers when and how to bring children and teachers back to school, it would be wise to heed the epidemiological evidence emerging from around the world.

“Younger children are far less likely to catch or transmit the Covid-19 virus and therefore bringing them back to school first is the safest approach — for them, for their teachers and for the health of our economy and society as a whole.”

The report acknowledges that reopening schools will involve a number of administrative complexities, including how to manage infection risks for adults that facilitate schooling, including teachers, principals, administrative staff, transport workers and school-feeding employees.

“Yet this should be held in tension with the severe limitations imposed by school closures; to children’s ability to learn, to caregiver’s ability to earn an income, and to the economy’s ability to function. The economy cannot properly ‘reopen’ while schools are closed. This is especially true for schooling for those 10 years of age and younger, who require the most care when at home.”

The South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) response to Spaull’s report is that the Department of Basic Education has to look at all models for the reopening of schools.

“The department should not take what one academic is saying but should look into different models,” says a Sadtu statement. “Whether Grade R or Grade 12 should be the first to go back to school, this should be part of the modelling that should be done by the department working with the Department of Health. The parents should also have a say in this.”

Elijah Mhlanga, spokesperson for the Department of Basic Education, says research papers are part of the material being broadly considered for a decision on schools reopening.

“There has been a call to allow lower grades to open first, in addition to Grade 12, and we are looking into it,” says Mahlangu. “The official advice will come from the Department of Health who are the lead departments in this regard. We will follow their directive. We are, however, on course to the reopening of schools for learners on 1 June.”

In his address to the country on Wednesday 13 May, President Cyril Ramaphosa gave no specifics on the reopening of more businesses or the reopening of schools, saying only: “We will need to reorganise workplaces, schools, universities, colleges and other public places to limit transmission.”

If given the go-ahead to resume lessons in two weeks time, Microkids will be ready.

The school was vandalised on 7 April — one of nearly 1,000 schools countrywide to have been broken into and damaged during the Covid-19 lockdown. The vandals smashed windows, pulled lockers off the walls and broke through a wall to get out.

“We’re waiting for contractors to fix everything and then we’ll be ready to open up,” says Jones.

The school that children return to will not be the same one they left in March. There will be a regime of increased hand washing, hand sanitising and temperature checks — and the introduction of screens between desks. The premises will be disinfected before the reopening.

“It’s a whole new re-learning curve for the kids — they can’t touch friends or share sweets. But, younger kids learn very fast and children are resilient. Little ones are not defiant, they listen very well,” observes Jones.

“We’ll be ready. But we have been told that preschools could only open by September. It will be too late for our school; for many schools,” says Talu. DM/MC


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