Maverick Citizen Op-ed
Contingency plans are needed so children can keep learning without going hungry
The government’s school nutrition programme is still not at pre-Covid levels and transport for pupils to collect their meals remains a challenge.
In a media release on 1 October 2020, the department of basic education gave an update on developments in the sector following the reopening of schools. They were first closed in March due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“One of the challenges that we have had to deal with as a result of the forced closure of schools is the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP).
“Initially, the number of learners coming to access the meals was low, but we have now seen a drastic improvement. Various provinces have arranged transport for learners not in schools to collect their meals, or collect the food parcels.
“This has assisted in increasing the number of beneficiaries who should be getting their meal supply daily. The reopening of schools has helped to ensure that more learners receive their much needed meals.”
While the uptake of the NSNP has improved, and may even have contributed to the latest data on lower rates of child hunger, the uptake of the NSNP remains far from ideal, especially when compared to its pre-Covid reach.
The second NIDS-CRAM report found adult and child hunger declined by 27% between May/June and July/August.
Between Wave 1 and 2 of the NIDS-CRAM study, reported hunger declined for “anyone in the household” (22% to 16%) and children (15% to 11%), representing a 27% decline. These new lower rates sadly remain substantially higher than pre-Covid levels.
The NSNP judgment
The NSNP normally feeds approximately 9.6 million of the poorest learners across the country during school term. It was suspended in March during the hard lockdown and then only provided to phased-in learners when schools began incrementally reopening from June.
The effect was that the majority of learners, who ordinarily qualified for the NSNP but were learning from home, did not receive their daily meal under the NSNP.
On 17 July, a North Gauteng High Court judgment in the case of Equal Education and others v Minister of Basic Education and others ordered that the NSNP resume fully and be provided to all qualifying learners, whether these learners were back in school or learning at home.
The judgment confirmed that the NSNP was a measure that enabled the DBE to fulfil its constitutional obligations to learners in terms of their rights to basic education and basic nutrition.
The judgment included a structural order requiring that the DBE and each provincial education department (PED) develop and implement a plan and programme for the resumption of the NSNP within 10 days of the judgment, and which they would implement without delay to ensure that all “qualifying learners will receive a daily meal under the NSNP, whether they are attending school or studying away from school as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic”.
The judgment further required the DBE and the PEDs to file a report every 15 days “setting out the steps they have taken to implement the plan and programme, when they took such steps, and how many learners in each district in their area of jurisdiction are receiving, and how many are not receiving, a daily meal in terms of the NSNP.”
Form over substance
To date, the DBE and each PED has filed their plans and reports with the court timeously. These reports, while complying in form, cannot be said to comply wholly in substance with the spirit and intent of the judgment, which is to ensure that each and every qualifying learner receives a daily meal.
The exigencies of alleviating widespread child hunger during the pandemic, combined with the staggered re-entry of grades and a second closure of schools at the height of the surge, has required more than a perfunctory attempt at planning for purposes of compliance with the court order.
It has required acknowledging that this is not “business as usual” and that the normal ways of feeding the poorest learners must be adapted. Public officials tasked with implementing the NSNP must therefore identify obstacles to 100% uptake of the NSNP and apply their minds to removing those obstacles.
In the earlier reports provided by the DBE and MECs, uptake of the NSNP for learners at home remained very low. As the legal representatives of the applicants, information gathered from our monitoring efforts suggested that learners and caregivers were not always aware that the NSNP had resumed. For learners living a distance from school, the absence of transport presented a barrier to them being able to access the NSNP.
We relayed this information to the DBE and PEDs and highlighted that the absence of effective communication strategies informing communities of the resumption of the NSNP, and the lack provision of scholar transport, was impacting on the uptake of the NSNP. We therefore recommended that plans be amended to address these concerns.
All schools have now reopened across the country and most learners are back to school within the confines of Covid-19 safety standards and protocols.
Many schools are therefore ‘platooning’ (different grades have different school sessions each day) or rotating (grades come to school on different days) to ensure effective social distancing in classrooms. Some learners have also been exempted from compulsory schooling because of fears of being infected with the virus.
The uptake of the NSNP has improved significantly but remains well below 100%, and in a few provinces remains unacceptably low.
According to the DBE, while approximately 5,9 million learners benefited from the NSNP towards the end of August, by mid-September this had improved to approximately 7,7 million learners. 100% uptake would entail approximately 9,6 million learners being fed daily.
A new round of monitoring, as well as an analysis of the most recent reports from the DBE and the PEDs, suggests that the main issue impacting uptake is that while learners are receiving food when they at school, they are not receiving food on the days they do not attend school because of rotation or because they have not yet returned to school.
This latest round of reports also informs us that only two provinces appear to be providing learners with food parcels for the days they are not at school. Moreover, despite the DBE statement, scholar transport across provinces to enable learners to go to school to collect food appears inconsistent across and within provinces.
Yet, remedying these issues to ensure 100% uptake is simple enough – give learners food parcels for the days they are not at school and ensure they have transport to school to collect food parcels.
We do not know how long we will have to continue to have our children attend schools subject to Covid-19 safety protocols, nor do we know if, like our European counterparts, we will be hit by a second wave of the virus that might necessitate another school closure.
What we do know is that, to survive this pandemic, we need to constantly adapt and change how we live, how we ensure learners are safe and how the NSNP is to be implemented.
We therefore need contingency plans for different scenarios so that each and every child can learn and not be hungry in a time when so many livelihoods have been lost, and economic growth is the lowest it’s ever been. DM/MC
Faranaaz Veriava and Sasha Stevenson are lawyers at SECTION27. SECTION27 and the Equal Education Law Centre represented the applicants in the case.
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