BACK TO SCHOOL?
Only three grades will return to class next week, education authorities decide
Only three out of the seven grades scheduled to return to their classrooms next week will do so, according to the Department of Basic Education and other education authorities. This decision comes as the department faces mounting pressure from trade unions, parents and the courts to make sure Covid-19 safety requirements are met before more pupils return.
Only Grade 6, Grade 11 and Grade R pupils will return to school on Monday 6 July, the Department of Basic Education announced on Thursday 2 July.
Grades 1, 2, 3 and 10 were also meant to return on 6 July, according to the 29 June Government Gazette. In addition, pupils from schools of skills, schools for learners with severe intellectual disabilities, schools for learners with severe and profound intellectual disabilities, and schools for autistic learners were all meant to reopen on 6 July. The last batch of learners was scheduled to return on 3 August.
This latest decision will affect all provinces and the other grades will be phased in over July until “normality” is reached in August, according to the department. It will publicise the new plan over the coming weekend.
The decision was taken after Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga met with Deputy Minister Reginah Mhaule, the Council of Education ministers, all MECs of education and heads of education departments on Thursday 2 July. They considered five reports which “provided a broad review of all the developments relating to the phased approach to the return of learners to school”.
“We will adjust the reopening phases based on the risk-adjusted strategy, which is a considered attempt to balance our approach to school reopening, taking into account all factors that affect the work we do.
“We are guided in this by an observation of the rising numbers of community transmissions throughout the country. We recognise that schools are based in communities and learners live in the same affected communities and therefore a careful balancing act must be maintained,” Motshekga said.
This decision came after the department briefed a joint sitting of the portfolio and select committees on basic education in Parliament on 30 June about the state of readiness for the return of pupils on 6 July.
The education sector learnt “invaluable safety lessons” during May and June which could be applied to the next phase of the reopening of schools, said Deputy Minister Mhaule.
The department’s director-general, Mathanzima Mweli, said pupils in Grades 1, 2, 3, 6, 10 and 11 are expected to return, but “we are not fixed to push all of them back to school”. He added that “the plans are flexible” because community transmission is increasing.
He emphasised that parents who do not want their children to go back to school still have the option to register them for home education, enrol their child in online learning or agree with the school to fetch and drop school work.
This week, some trade unions were vocal again about concerns over more pupils returning to school. The Professional Educators’ Union, the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union and the National Association of School Governing Bodies have all argued that the department has failed to deliver on safety requirements, even with only two grades at school. They questioned how the department and schools will cope with more pupils in the classroom.
There has been mounting pressure on the department over the phased return to school since the process began.
When Grade 7 and Grade 12 pupils returned to their classrooms on 8 June, trade unions warned that the health and safety measures at schools were unsustainable. They questioned how the department could keep up its efforts in the long run, especially once other grades return to class.
At the time, almost 600 schools remained closed because of a lack of water, sanitation and personal protective equipment. The previous week, only two out of the nine provinces were ready to reopen their schools.
Since then, trade unions and parent groups have kept up the pressure. Less than two weeks after schools reopened, two trade unions and a group of principals demanded that classes be suspended.
In addition, the government’s phased plan has been challenged in court. The Pretoria High Court ruled that it is content with government’s strategy to keep schools safe and open during the Covid-19 pandemic and dismissed an application by the One South Africa Movement to have schools closed. Mmusi Maimane’s organisation had argued schools weren’t ready to restart classes safely.
The suspension of the National School Nutrition Programme has also come under fire. Equal Education and two Limpopo school governing bodies asked the high court to compel government to restart the programme and feed all learners in all grades – not just Grades 7 and 12 – to provide those nine million children with a daily meal.
The Basic Education Department claimed in court papers filed last week that the National School Nutrition Programme was restarted for all learners on 22 June. It argued the legal action of Equal Education and SECTION27 to compel it to restart the programme is, therefore “moot”. However, Equal Education argues the programme had been hastily, poorly and only partially restarted. The matter was heard on 2 July and judgment was reserved.
A lack of water and sanitation also continues to plague schools. There have been reports in KwaZulu-Natal that the few water tanks that have been installed often couldn’t function because there was no water supply. In the Eastern Cape, a handful of schools meant to open on 8 June remain closed four weeks later because their tanks await clean water deliveries.
Since 8 June, almost 800 schools have had to suspend classes, after confirming Covid-19 cases, in order to decontaminate the space. More than 500 learners and 1,000 school staff have tested positive for the virus in the four weeks of school so far.
The department argues that the rise in Covid-19 infections among pupils did not occur at school, but in malls, at home and on public transport.
Nevertheless, class attendance has been 98% at schools which have reopened since 8 June, the department claims. Motshekga took this as a sign of support from parents for the “rationality of reopening schools”. In the same breath she said:
“I don’t expect us to go back to normality in the next two years. We are going to [continuously] close and open schools. We can’t run away from coexisting with this virus and life has to go on as normal under the difficult conditions… we are moving forward to phase-in other grades.” DM/MC