ANALYSIS

Schools – the hardest governance decision of them all

By Stephen Grootes 16 July 2020
Caption
It is important for people to keep cool heads over the opening of schools and to ensure that trust remains in the system and between the various groups and their leaders, says the writer. (Illustrative image sources: Gallo Images / Bebe Kabvundura) | Leila Dougan | kindpng / pngplus)

South Africa, like many other countries, is once more convulsed in a debate about whether schools should be open during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, there are no simple answers to the governance questions this throws up. And there now appears to be the possibility that bad faith, or allegations of bad faith, will enter this debate.

In South Africa, because of our racialised inequality, our divided past and present, and our huge geographic and linguistic disparities, education and the role that schools play is a divisive subject. Our system makes sure that children who grow up speaking Afrikaans in Pretoria and isiZulu in Umlazi and Tshivenda in Vuwani write the same matric exam. In the process, people who grow up in different worlds are brought together in a way that makes them all South African (or is supposed to).

This is why parents have so many different views.

Most government schools have reopened and are teaching some grades. More grades are due to go back next week, which would take most schools back to near-full capacity. Some private schools are already operating at full capacity, while a number of public schools have requested a “deviation” from government policy, and may be about to have all of their learners back as well.

On Tuesday this week, the SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) said it was calling on Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga to close schools again. It was followed by the other major teachers’ union, the National Professional Teachers Organisation of SA (Naptosa), which made the same call. 

There are two major federations of school governing bodies in South Africa. One, the Federation of Governing Bodies of SA Schools, wants schools to remain open. The other, the National Association of Governing Bodies, is still consulting with its members and hopes to have a formal view by the weekend.

Meanwhile, the basic education department says the decision on reopening or closing schools again is up to the Cabinet, and that this cannot be done in a rush. It hopes to announce a decision after consultations that should end on Friday.

That is the politics map of the situation, and every issue is contested. The parents naturally worry for their children and want the best for them. And different parents will have strongly differing views. Same applies to the teachers and staff.

On one level this might seem simple: the number of cases of Covid-19 is going up dramatically, we are still to live through the peak, and having schools open exposes children to danger, thus schools should be closed.

Add to that the advice of the World Health Organisation. It says schools should only be opened in communities with a low incidence of transmission. It also says that children, while unlikely to be badly affected by the disease, will still be infected.

This strengthens the arguments of those who believe schools should be closed again.

However, the issues are much more complex than that.

The CEO and president of the SA Medical Research Council, Professor Glenda Gray, a world-class scientist, made the point that children do not suffer from the disease (they can catch it but do not suffer harmful effects). To this, she added that she is also a paediatrician and the parent of a child of school-going age, who is at school. 

It seems right that parents should make the final decision. The government has been consistent, even to the level of the president, in confirming that no parent will be forced to send their child to school. On the face of it, it seems parents are happy to send their children to school. 

She also pointed out that children do not appear to transmit the disease to adults. This would remove the argument that children could contract the disease at school and then pass it on to elderly, more vulnerable relatives.

Gray also argues that, in some cases, children are much safer at school than not going to school.

This is where it may be that the WHO’s advice cannot be applied equally to every country. While some children may contract the disease at school, in South Africa, around nine million children receive a meal at school every day (during normal times). For many, this is the only hot meal they get. To keep them from this meal could be more dangerous than the exposure to Covid-19.

This could strengthen the argument that only children in poorer areas should go to school while children in richer areas (who presumably do not need meals at school) should not. But the opposite is happening.

In all of this is South Africa’s massive inequality, which is often re-entrenched through education disparities. If some children go to school during this time and others do not, those who do not will be disadvantaged. But would it make sense to say that if schools in Gauteng (total confirmed cases: 112,714) must be closed, so should schools in Northern Cape (total confirmed cases: 1,667)?

And what about private schools? Should they be closed because government schools are closed? Isn’t keeping them open make education inequality worse? And yet, parents at private schools would fight hard to keep their schools open, leading to yet more court action.

There are many more pertinent questions that could be asked here. Sadtu appears to be leading the charge in the demand for schools to be closed. Would its leadership and its members have the same view if the basic education department suddenly agreed, but said that it would not pay teachers while schools were closed? Sadtu’s critics would certainly argue that making the argument to stay at home and still be paid is easy. But stopping teachers’ salaries might change the game. And in an environment where many people are losing their jobs or taking pay cuts in the private sector, why should teachers be paid to stay at home?

It seems right that parents should make the final decision. The government has been consistent, even to the level of the president, in confirming that no parent will be forced to send their child to school. On the face of it, it seems parents are happy to send their children to school. 

If schools are closed again “for the peak” to pass, when will they reopen? How will that decision be made? No one knows when the “peak” will be, and no one will know when it is in fact over. And how can someone decide now how to make a decision to reopen schools later?

The basic education ministry says 98% of children in the grades that are at school have now returned. That kind of figure could settle this argument once and for all. However, the unions are not buying it. Naptosa says the figure cannot be true.

This is where bad faith can enter the picture. There are many who believe Sadtu has no interest in working. When he started his presidency, Jacob Zuma often said he wanted teachers to be “in class, for seven hours a day, teaching”. It seemed impossible to achieve, partly because of this union (which has been accused in the past of selling positions in schools).

There will also be some who believe that the basic education minister Motshekga and her officials will only keep schools open out of a sense of stubbornness, that they don’t want to be embarrassed by climbing down. However, this seems unlikely, as already decisions have been changed at the last minute, and she and the Cabinet have shown a willingness to be flexible on this.

But overriding all of the department’s concerns is another worry.

If schools are closed again “for the peak” to pass, when will they reopen? How will that decision be made? No one knows when the “peak” will be, and no one will know when it is in fact over. And how can someone decide now how to make a decision to reopen schools later?

Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize and others keep reiterating that this is a virus that South Africa (and the world) may have to live with for a long time. It is one thing to postpone the school year, or delay teaching for a few months, or even run part of this year into next year. What if we are still in this position in a year’s time, or the year after that? That would make it impossible to reopen schools, and make it impossible for children to regain what they have lost (especially if that includes school meals).

It is important for people to keep cool heads and to ensure that trust remains in the system and between the various groups and their leaders. To allow this to devolve into the type of dispute we have seen in the past will make this situation so much worse. For everyone.

Education is a basic building block of society. This decision is possibly the hardest governance decision of the pandemic. Which is why the government’s strategy might still change several times over the coming months. DM

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