Our children must go back to school

Children walk to school in Soweto on 30 June 2020. (Photo: Gallo Images / Papi Morake)

You don’t need to work with children or have any kind of training to realise the devastating and life-long effect of keeping children out of school.

When the SA National Taxi Council (Santaco) pushed back on social distancing regulations, our Presidency bowed its head and announced that full occupancy in taxis would be allowed. Just a few days after this announcement, when the teachers’ union Sadtu fought for teachers to remain at home due to rising infections and fear of contracting the virus, the Department of Basic Education shut down schools for an additional four weeks. 

It is not hard to see the politics behind the decision-making and the game of chess that is being played behind closed doors. 

Despite Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga acknowledging the latest opinion of the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC), that learners are better off at school than in communities and homes, schools were closed once again, with further disruptions to children’s well-being and education. 

When one reads the medical evidence and advice from the relevant medical bodies, such as the WHO, the Paediatric Council of South Africa, or the MAC, and tries to line it up with the regulations and restrictions imposed by the government, it is as if we are talking about two unrelated topics. 

In an article on News24, in May, Dr Glenda Gray, a member of the MAC  and chairperson of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), raised questions about whether the government was taking the scientific advice of the MAC into account when making decisions. 

In May, the WHO endorsed the medical evidence that transmission of the coronavirus by children is low and said this should influence decision-making regarding the closing and reopening of schools. The organisation concluded that infections among learners and teachers occurred largely outside the classroom. The WHO also endorsed studies showing that the closure of schools to curtail the spread of the virus is a weak tool, just as weak as the idea that the reopening of schools would increase infections. 

The evidence is overwhelming. We are looking at the effects of a virus weighed up against a multitude of losses that will be ingrained in the development of the youngest generation for what might be decades, or their lifetime. 

According to Martin Gustafsson, a socio-economic researcher at the Department of Economics at Stellenbosch University, data collected by the Department of Basic Education is aligned with that from the WHO. 

In its May advisory, the WHO also emphasised consideration of socio-economic costs and stated that countries needed to base their decision-making on their specific needs, and that the closure of schools could not be a blanket approach worldwide – especially in developing countries where children are reliant on schools for much of their safety, well-being and nutrition. 

It is not just a case of saving lives by sheltering people from a virus. It is far more complex than that, and in South Africa sheltering children from the coronavirus may lead to their deaths from abuse, malnutrition, or the socio-economic knock-on effect that the academic and psychosocial decline will have in years to come. 

The evidence is overwhelming. We are looking at the effects of a virus weighed up against a multitude of losses that will be ingrained in the development of the youngest generation for what might be decades, or their lifetime. 

Wave 1 of the NIDS-CRAM survey interviewed 7,000 respondents between May and June. Half of the households interviewed ran out of money to buy food in April, and one in seven households reported that a child went hungry within the week of being interviewed. Data showed how adults in the household were sacrificing their own food so their children did not starve. And Gift of the Givers told GroundUp that children in Eastern Cape were being fed wild plants to survive. 

Gustafsson, in an analysis presented on 16 July, shows that countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Eastern African Community (EAC), where schools have reopened have a much greater percentage of learners who are reliant on school nutrition programmes than countries that have kept their schools closed – with the exception of eight countries, South Africa being one. The data shows that governments in these regions recognise the need to keep children in school so that hunger and malnutrition can be prevented. 

This is in stark contrast to South Africa, which not only kept schools closed but refused to continue its National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP). It is baffling that a matter of child hunger had to be fought in court, with the acting deputy judge president, Sulet Potterill, ordering the Department of Basic Education to resume the programme for all nine million learners that it feeds. In the meantime, severe acute malnutrition is increasing rapidly, with serious and undeniable effects on learning. 

Questions can be asked how one can know what is right in situations as new as the coronavirus pandemic. With little experience, governments can only try their best to make decisions that benefit their people, most of the time by trial and error. However, this notion is not entirely accurate, as there is data available on the effects of previous epidemics and natural disasters across the world. The question I have been asking is: why are we not utilising this data more? 

Unicef executive director Henrietta Fore said, “Rising inequality, poor health outcomes, violence, child labour and child marriage are just some of the long-term threats for children who miss out on school.” 

For example, a study on children who had been kept out of school for three months following a massive earthquake in Pakistan found that children whose nutrition was negatively affected displayed stunting five years after the disaster. If we apply this time-frame to our own context, children who have experienced a massive decline in nutrition in the 4½ months since schools were initially shut could experience the effects of stunting for approximately 7.2 years – that’s if they start receiving adequate nutrition immediately. A time period so great that it will never be recovered or reversed. 

Also discussed in the NIDS-Cram Survey is the epidemiological evidence that suggests that transmission and contraction of the coronavirus in children younger than 10 is extremely rare, with adolescents showing infection patterns in-between that of young children and adults. This data suggests that school strategies for different age groups should vary according to risk, with the youngest children, who are also generally the most vulnerable in their communities, the least at risk of spreading and contracting the virus. 

Instead, we sent caregivers and parents back to work to keep the economy afloat, we sent children in Grades 12 and 7 back to school, and left the youngest and most vulnerable children at home without any form of safety or support. Although the need to make sure Grade 12 and Grade 7 learners pass their respective school-leaving requirements is obvious, it makes absolutely no sense to refuse younger children the right to return to the places that keep them safe while their parents are at work. 

In April 2020, Unesco, Unicef, WFP, and the World Bank issued guidelines for the reopening of schools worldwide, and acknowledged the extraordinary risk that school closures have on children – mostly those from disadvantaged and developing countries. 

Unicef executive director Henrietta Fore said, “Rising inequality, poor health outcomes, violence, child labour and child marriage are just some of the long-term threats for children who miss out on school.” 

Devastatingly, in South Africa, socio-economic and educational disparities are already miles apart, with children from lower socio-economic backgrounds constantly playing catch-up with their privileged peers. We now have a situation where privileged children are enjoying the luxury of home-learning through online platforms such as Google Classroom and Zoom, while the less privileged are at home without access to the same kind of supportive learning. 

Yes, there are a few zero-rated learning websites, radio and TV platforms that the government and certain companies have so proudly boasted about, but most children cannot access these platforms because they don’t have the requisite devices, and even if they do have one device at home, sharing it among three or four other children in the household makes learning impossible. With their parents and caregivers being forced to return to work, these children are left alone and expected to self-direct their learning from the age of six or seven. 

Added to this is that children who are left at home are not staying indoors. They roam the streets of their neighbourhood unsupervised and often without wearing face masks. Children who are at school can be supervised and the use of masks and social distancing can be enforced. Children at school are also screened on a daily basis, making the detection of infection far more likely. 

Data from the NIDS-CRAM survey confirms that the possibility of schooling from home is far greater in wealthier households and that this solution is not feasible in developing countries. 

Although data and evidence on the coronavirus are changing rapidly, there is one thing that has remained constant through both the learnt effects of previous disasters and evidence produced by medical councils, economic, and child rights organisations across the world: children must return to school. DM

Talia-Jade Magnes is director at The Shaken and Abused Babies Initiative | Babies Matter.


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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