South Africa


Government reopening of schools: Who decides which child is left behind?

Government reopening of schools: Who decides which child is left behind?
Basic Education minister Angie Motshekga. (Photo: Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Deaan Vivier)

The directions from the Department of Basic Education, as they currently stand, leave too much latitude for individual well-resourced schools to take decisions that will be self-serving and do nothing to improve a deeply unequal system. We need unambiguous accountability, swift remedial steps and all-encompassing directions.

In the midst of the Covid-19 lockdown, Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga announced that all schools would reopen for Grade 7 and 12 learners on 1 June 2020. In a haphazard fashion and just hours before schools were due to open, Motshekga announced the postponement of schools reopening to 8 June 2020. This eleventh-hour decision added confusion and uncertainty to an education system already immensely burdened with inequality. In a country where the government is a strong proponent of the fundamental right to basic education for all, will no child really be left behind in their response to Covid-19? 

To evaluate the Department of Basic Education’s (DBE) response to the reopening of schools, it is necessary to look past the confusing public announcements and consider the much-anticipated directions published on 29 May 2020.

The directions regarding the reopening of schools and measures to address, prevent and combat the spread of Covid-19 were supplemented by the amendments to the directions published on 1 June 2020. In summary, the directions provide for the phased-in approach of educators and learners, the return dates for all grades, the May/June examinations, the issuing of permits, and general safety measures. 

A further amendment to the directions will likely be published within this week. The Legal Resources Centre and other stakeholders were asked to comment on the draft amendments to the revised directions dated 10 June 2020. We welcome the inclusion of recommendations made to the DBE such as the inclusion of a direction requiring the provincial education departments to report to the DBE on a weekly basis on how many schools have not met the minimum requirements for reopening, the cleaning of all areas twice a day, and providing each official and learner with a minimum of two cloth face masks or face shields, as required.  

The education system should serve all, with a specific focus on the most vulnerable children in society who are already disproportionately affected by the obscene gaps in access to education, along racial and poverty lines. Not all the submissions made by the Legal Resources Centre were incorporated into the draft amended directions and it is necessary to highlight glaring problems with the directions. 

  • Sub-direction 3(1A) – Deviation from the phased-in approach

This section provides that schools may apply to deviate from the phased return to school in respect of specific Grades or even dates. It allows for larger and well-resourced schools to operate at full capacity much earlier, which will exacerbate and further polarise the already unequal education system. This provision also makes the revision of the curriculum ludicrous as learners in the same grade at differently resourced schools may or may not be attending school. It is our view that the sub-direction should be removed in its entirety.

We further advocate that well-resourced schools with enough space should not be fast-tracking their reopening through deviations, but should rather be assisting schools unable to comply with the directions and therefore unable to open. This approach, instead of further polarising the system, would be a unique opportunity for levelling the education playing field. 

  • Sub-Direction 3(A) – DBE is mandated to make arrangements with a school unable to open 

This section provides that the DBE must make arrangements with a school unable to reopen for learners to receive ongoing teaching and learning, but absolutely no indication is given as to how this will happen. We view this provision as impractical, and even unhelpful at this stage. During Level 5 and 4 of the lockdown, learners enrolled in poorly-resourced schools did not have the necessary access to online/remote teaching and learning, and for the most part received no learning opportunities. This will not change unless creative solutions with plenty of guidance and leadership are provided. 

If no learner is going to be left behind, the DBE must provide guidelines for distance/remote learning with a range of ideas and suggestions for schools and teachers to ensure that learners receive ongoing teaching and learning. This must include suggestions on the very difficult question of how to distribute learning materials and provide instruction to those without access to the internet, WhatsApp groups and the plethora of other mediums being used by learners in better resourced schools. The DBE must also give direction on how this will be supported and funded. 

  • Sub-direction 4(3) and 4(3A) – Schools that do not comply with the standards

Section 4(3A) provides that schools that do not comply with the standards may not reopen and the DBE must make arrangements to ensure the continuation of education. In the current gazetted version of the directions, no clarity is provided on the steps that must be taken to ensure that schools are made ready to open without delay, who is responsible for taking those steps, or what the timeframes are. 

We are already seeing the practical implications of this section as the MEC for Education in Limpopo disclosed in an interview with eNCA that 48 rural schools in Limpopo did not open on 8 June 2020 due to non-compliance of water and sanitation standards. The MEC confirmed that the learners enrolled in these 48 schools are currently receiving no education. These learners are left behind by the DBE’s response to Covid-19, and its lack of specificity and accountability measures necessary to ensure remedial action without delay. 

To ensure clear lines of accountability and time frames, we propose the inclusion of a sub-direction which instructs the principal to inform the provincial education department and the district director of non-compliance and in return, the provincial education department must advise the principal on how to remedy the non-compliance within three days. This localised seed-model approach of remedying the non-compliance will ensure quicker action and clear lines of accountability. 

The draft amendments to the directions provide that the provincial education department must “endeavour” to make “reasonable” arrangements with a school that does not comply with the standards for reopening. An endeavour to make arrangements is not sufficient, and the provincial education departments should be mandated to make arrangements within a stipulated, short period of time. Access to education should not be left to a department or individual’s interpretation of what is “reasonable”. 

  • Sub-direction 10(4)(a) – Deviation of the 50% capacity limit

This section permits schools with large enough premises to deviate from the 50% capacity limit. Better resourced schools situated on larger premises may open to full capacity with no timetable disruptions, while overcrowded schools must rearrange themselves and use rotation, shift or platoon systems. We submit that all schools should have one minimum standard with which to comply, regardless of their resources. Covid-19 should not be used as an excuse to aggravate education disparities.

Instead of allowing well-off schools to forge ahead and capitalise on their good fortune, they should veer from the orthodox and assist those learners in schools that are not able to reopen. The pandemic presents an opportunity for well-resourced schools to partner with poorly-resourced schools and to lessen the inequalities and challenge the status quo. If the department is not going to take the lead on this, well-resourced schools themselves should be looking for ways to assist the struggling schools. 

In conclusion, who decides which of the 12 million children enrolled in public schools will be left behind? The directions as they currently stand leave too much latitude for individual well-resourced schools to take decisions that will be self-serving and do nothing to improve a deeply unequal system. We need unambiguous accountability, swift remedial steps and all-encompassing directions. DM  

Amy-Leigh completed her LLB in 2017 at the University of the Western Cape. She is an Attorney at the Legal Resources Centre in Cape Town and a Bertha Justice Fellow Alumni. Amy-Leigh has a passion for ensuring Equality and Non-Discrimination specifically with a focus on Gender Rights and Education. 

Petra Marais is a Candidate Attorney and Bertha Justice Fellow at the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) in Cape Town. She obtained both a BCom (Law) and LLB degree from Stellenbosch University and joined the LRC in 2018 as an intern. Petra started as a Candidate Attorney at the LRC beginning of 2019, and is part of the Bertha Justice Fellowship which trains the next generation of social justice and movement lawyers.


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