South Africa


As painful as it gets: The great school reopening debate

As painful as it gets: The great school reopening debate
The faces of those affected by Covid-19 are not just those we know who die from the disease, they are also the faces of children whose life chances are being damaged by the day as schools remain closed, says the writer (Photo: EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook)

The decision by the Department of Basic Education to delay the reopening of government schools has been supported, but at the same time harshly criticised. In reality, making such a difficult choice during the second wave was always going to lead to high temperatures and sharpening divisions.

On Friday, the Basic Education Department announced it would delay the reopening of government schools until 15 February. Officials also said they would ask independent schools to delay their reopening (legally the department cannot force them to postpone — each school can make its own decision — and spare a thought for those running private schools; they are being asked by the department, on the one hand, to not reopen in the interests of social solidarity while the parents, who have moved away from the government schools, are likely to demand they reopen).

While trying to enforce the reopening of schools in January would have led to huge opposition, it may well have lessened the sharpening divides along class and race lines that we are likely to see now. And perhaps it would do more to protect children during the pandemic, but also in terms of their life-chances after this calamity is over.

For many parents, this is incredibly frustrating. They may believe that their children need more structure in their lives, there is some evidence that schools may in fact be safer for children than spending a day in a street, and there are at least nine million children who rely on the school nutrition programme for enough to eat.

For others, this is an incredible relief. Why reopen schools when more than 800 people are dying every day from Covid-19, when we can now all put a face to those who have died, and when teachers are scared to go back to work.

The next face of Covid-19 could be yours


It is well known that this is perhaps the most difficult governance decision there is during the pandemic. Many other countries have grappled with this. One of the problems is that doctors and scientists themselves are not in total agreement.

Schools – the hardest governance decision of them all

The SA Paediatric Association slammed the decision to delay the reopening on Friday afternoon. Their executive member, Professor Haroon Saloojee, said it was “not a decision based on science”. He told Newzroom Afrika that despite the emergence of the new variant of the disease, children were still much less likely than adults to catch it and the figures of children developing severe symptoms are very low.

Saloojee also said that teachers appear to be more likely to contract the disease in their communities than at school. The fact that 300 teachers died during the holidays may strengthen that suggestion.

Saloojee firmly believes that children are safer in school, a controlled environment, than outside it.

However, some epidemiologists have a different view.

Chair of the Ministerial Advisory Committee Professor Salim Abdool Karim said last week that “it may be wise to postpone the opening” simply because the high number of cases in the community during the second wave would lead to schools having to regularly close as new cases were reported.

It is not that an epidemiologist and a paediatrician are necessarily contradicting each other, it’s that they may be looking at this problem in slightly different ways.

The SA Paediatric Association was not the only body worried about this decision.

The SA Human Rights Commission says there is no evidence that the virus is being transmitted at schools and that, “on the contrary, schools have proved to be some of the safest spaces when health and safety protocols are adhered to”. It is also deeply troubled by the possibility that the School Nutrition Programme will be disrupted.

In the end, the decision on schools possibly comes down to two major constituencies: teachers and parents.

A University of Johannesburg/HSRC survey released last week found that 53% of parents felt the opening of schools should be delayed.

But it would be foolish to make public policy through a poll which reveals such an even split.

If 53% of people don’t want their children to go to school, it would surely be impossible to say that the children of the 47% who do want their children to go to school should now be denied their right to have their children educated.

This gets to the heart of questions about how policy should be made. It can be tempting in a democracy to make decisions based mainly on public opinion. But that is why we have rights in the Constitution (otherwise gay marriage would be illegal, capital punishment the order of the day and Carl Niehaus would be in prison). There should clearly be space in public policymaking for experts.

Paradoxically, the survey seems to indicate that middle-class parents are happier to send their children back to school than parents in township areas. The researchers believe this may be because schools in the suburbs are better able to administer Covid-19 protocols and that parents are aware of this.

This may be the case. But it could also be that, as the Human Rights Commission is suggesting, children in township areas are better off at school in these circumstances because of the protection that a school environment can often provide.

All these positions are hugely contested.

But decisions like these cannot be made without teachers, as they are obviously in the centre of the storm.

Here, it seems the roles of the teachers’ unions Sadtu and Naptosa were critical and in the end they both called for a delay.

Oddly, the role of Naptosa may perhaps in some ways be more important in this decision.

Sadtu is often accused by the middle and chattering classes of trying to avoid teaching whenever possible, while Naptosa does not face the same accusations.

In the decisions made by the department in 2020, it may have been possible to open schools in the face of opposition from Sadtu, but with public support. But when Naptosa agrees with Sadtu, it becomes impossible.

The question that both the Department of Basic Education and society now face is: when to reopen?

Abdool Karim believes that predictions of how long the second wave of Covid-19 will last cannot be made because it is being driven by the new variant. But he does believe it will end more quickly than the first wave did.

While the number of new cases over the past three days (as of Sunday 17 January 2021, when the number of new reported infections was 12,267) appears to be lower than the week before, that is not proof the worst is over.

It now becomes impossible to know when a decision can be made about when schools will safely reopen. In a worst-case scenario what would happen if this wave lasted for six months? It would then be politically impossible to reopen schools, in a situation in which the SA Paediatric Association says there is no risk to children or teachers from being back in class. 

In the meantime, the risks of keeping schools closed mount. More and more children appear to be at risk of dropping out of school for good, which will have a catastrophic impact on their lives and the lives of their families. 

This is the problem that turns the impact of Covid-19 from something that disrupts our society for a period of, say, five years (at worst), to a problem that becomes generational, a problem that our society cannot recover from.

It is for this reason that the great school debate will continue.

The faces of those affected by Covid-19 are not just those we know who die from the disease, they are also the faces of children whose life chances are being damaged by the day as schools remain closed, while our inequality and the gaps between the different parts of our society continue to widen. DM


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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • William Stucke says:

    Thank you for a thoughtful analysis, as always, Stephen.
    This is a subject that I may perhaps be able to comment on from the perspective of personal exposure. My ex-wife runs a very small remedial school, in which the parents and teachers have agreed that it’s in the best interests of the children if they return to school tomorrow. As kids who struggle in any case, missing more school may be catastrophic for them. However, parents’ situations differ, as do the capabilities of the children. Each parent has therefore been given a choice, for each child, for the child to physically attend school, or to receive remote lessons. The choices made are not clearly divided by race, class, or any other criterion. The only clear choice is with the smallest kids, all of whom are returning to school except for one who is fortunate to have a granny willing – and more to point perhaps – capable of managing the remote lessons for the little ‘un.
    This is obviously a great deal more work for the teachers, especially as this compromise was only reached over the weekend, so each teacher now has to prepare a second less11on plan for many children. As a small semi-rural school with dedicated non-unionised staff, they have been fortunate to have this luxury of choice.

  • Alison Immelman Immelman says:

    2 sets of bad stats.
    1. It is not 47% who want their children to go to school. 22% were undecided.
    2. 300 teachers may have passed during the holidays, but another 1300 died during the previous 8 months. This 300 must be taken in the context of the exponential rise in both infections and deaths generally. The 1600 is nigh on 5% of the total deaths. For a cohort of 1% of the general population.
    In addition, paediatricians deal largely with pre-teens – a group that admittedly does not seem to contract the virus as frequently. High schools are super spreaders – larger bodies squished into small spaces, and a ‘me’ mentality. I’m in a (possibly) lower risk group, so physical distancing and masks be damned. It was the same selfish behaviour at events such as the Ballito rage that contributed so hectically to the second wave.

    • Anthony Katakuzinos says:


      Its a ongoing debate. But there is clear medical evidence that young children up to the age of 12 are not super spreaders. The risk of the young children missing key face to face learning will impact them for the rest of there lives. If the schools take reasonable steps of sanitization and mask wearing, primary schools should be opened ASAP for the benefit of the children. They also at this young age missing out on key social skills and mental health aspects of not socializing and interacting face to face and fact to face teaching will have negative impacts for many yrs. As the stats look like they coming down primary schools should be allowed to open on campus from 1 February with tight following of health protocols. High schools are better able to focus for a period with online lessons, but they to need to come back as numbers drop and risks come down.

    • Dave Martin says:

      Alison, I think one intervention that is needed to protect teachers better is to issue them with five N95 masks each to be used rotationally as per CDC guidelines. There are no longer shortages of these masks and they can be ordered easily online.

      These are the masks used by doctors working with covid patients.

      It is very unlikely that a teacher wearing an N95 mask in a classroom would contract Covid19.

  • Kate Alexander says:

    From the UJ/HSRC survey:
    53% of adults think schools should remain closed until the situation improves.
    19% of adults believe that schools should re-open for grade 7 and grade 12 learners only.
    19% of adults think schools should re-open for all grades/
    9% of adults ‘don’t know’.
    So, only 19% think that schools should re-open for all grades. Of course, public opinion is only one factor for the government to consider, but in a democracy it should not be ignored.

  • Ivan van Heerden says:

    The simple fact of the matter is that for 9 months the DOE has not done what it should have to ensure schools are ready and are now punishing those schools and parents that are ready by their ineptitude.

    Schools should re-open on a case by case basis, if the school has protocols in place, and the parents and teachers are happy for the school to open, it should.

    Mr Grootes has also conveniently forgotten to ask the most important question. Is this a calculated ploy by our little Marxists to collapse the Model C school systems? More and more parents are pulling their kids out of school to complete online home schooling or go to private schools. This leads to fewer fee paying parents and the slow death of many a school. Once this happens the parents will have no say in the running of the schools in their areas, all will be dictated by a department that firmly believes 30% is sufficient to pass a child onto the next grade.

    I weep for the future of this country

    • Geoff Young says:

      Mr van Heerden, your suggestion for schools to re-open on a case by case basis is, if you think about it, completely impractical. Who would determine the equitable criteria and, more importantly, where on earth would you find the manpower to assess every state school in the country over the next 2 weeks?

  • Andrew van der Watt says:

    Private school parents are bankrupting themselves to send their children to a school that is independent of the follies and foibles of the Department of Basic Education. “Interests of social solidarity “? Give me a break. Surely the principal, together with the governing body and the PTA (of any school, government or private) can make a decision whether the school is safe for opening or not?
    By not opening, we are risking an under-educated generation that is incapable of providing a meaningful economic contribution to society, and more likely to require living off a grant for the rest of their lives.

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