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South African public schools to close as coronavirus cases rise over 400,000

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA - MAY 27: A general view of Glenstantia Primary School preparing for students to return to school on May 27, 2020 in Pretoria, South Africa. It is reported that the Department of Basic Education announced that Grade 12 and 7 learners will go back to school on the 1st of June 2020. Subsequently, a new adjusted school calendar will be published in the Gazette. (Photo: Gallo Images/Lee Warren)

JOHANNESBURG, July 23 (Reuters) - South African public schools will close for four weeks, President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Thursday, as confirmed coronavirus cases rose over 400,000.

Ramaphosa said it was important that schools did not become sites of transmission at a time when the country’s coronavirus infections are rising at one of the fastest rates in the world.

“We have taken a deliberately cautious approach to keep schools closed during a period when the country is expected to experience its greatest increase in infections,” he said in a televised address to the nation.

Public schools will close from July 27 until Aug. 24, apart from for Grade 12 learners who will take a one-week break and Grade 7 students who will take a two-week break.

Ramaphosa acknowledged it had been difficult to reach consensus in consultations between the government, schools, parents and civil society on whether schools should be open during the pandemic.

The current academic year will be extended beyond the end of 2020, and the government will continue a nutrition programme to provide meals to learners during the break.

South Africa shuttered schools when it entered a hard lockdown in late March, but it allowed classes to resume for some grades from early June.

In recent weeks, however, trade unions including teachers’ union SADTU have lobbied for schools to be shut until after the peak of infections passes, which could only happen in September.

Unions have raised concerns about a high level of absenteeism, poor infrastructure in schools in townships and rural communities and a failure to follow health and safety protocols.

But some education experts say closing schools is the wrong approach.

They say teachers are more likely to get infected in their communities than at school and that closing schools could compromise the healthcare system by forcing some healthcare workers to juggle childcare with their work to contain the virus.

School closures earlier this year widened an already stark educational divide between top schools that could move their syllabus online and poorly funded ones that lacked the resources or training to do virtual schooling.

(Reporting by Alexander Winning; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

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