6 May 2020
Media statement: Testimonies of Equal Education members (learners, teachers, parents) demand cohesive and detailed implementation plans from basic education authorities
Last week Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga revised the provisional date for Grade 7 and Grade 12 learners to return to school, from 6 May to 1 June. While Equal Education (EE) is relieved that the schooling system now has more time to prepare, the contradictory and incomplete plans being communicated by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) is cause for serious concern.
Motshekga’s televised briefing followed a presentation to Parliament by DBE Director General Mathanzima Mweli on the plans to reopen schools. Both briefings have elicited strong reactions from the public, of confusion and concern.
EE’s high school members (Equalisers), from across five provinces, have expressed important and distressing anxieties about the impact that lockdown has had on them, including stress caused by lagging behind with school work, feeling unsafe, and being worried about access to food. At the same time, the fears about going back to school surfaced by EE members include: overcrowded classrooms; the poor state of school toilets; lack of water; and feeling unsafe at school given the number of burglaries.
The halting of the national school nutrition programme (NSNP), and food security
It is shocking that Motshekga, despite repeated queries, has still failed to explain how existing funds for the school nutrition programme will be spent, and what the plans are for restarting the programme as different grades are phased in. Our country faces grave food insecurity challenges – evident in instances of food riots, and queues kilometres long of people hoping for access to food relief. Ultimately, children suffer the most.
“I think I’ve lost a few kilos because I don’t get enough food, mostly it has affected me emotionally and mentally because I can’t study with an empty stomach, let alone do anything at all.” – Gauteng Equaliser
“We can’t get access to enough food and water, and nobody is working at the moment at home, so financially we are low.” – KwaZulu-Natal Equaliser
“It was better when I could get food at school, and it’s stressful as well seeing my mother struggling to provide for us.” – Western Cape Equaliser
“It’s a struggle for me and my family as we don’t have enough food to sustain us throughout the lockdown, even for a single month because we depend on one source of income (my father). That makes it worse during this lockdown, we spend most of our time indoors. In all, it’s physically exhausting and emotionally draining to stay in hunger most of the time, because we also can’t get any food parcels as they clearly stated that it’s for those without any source of income at all, including those who depend on SASSA as well.” – Eastern Cape Equaliser
EE, alongside the Equal Education Law Centre, the Centre for Child Law, the Children’s Institute and Section27 called for an urgent joint meeting between Parliament’s Portfolio Committees on Basic Education and Social Development to get clear responses from the officials of both departments on their plans to ensure that children have food. This call followed an open letter to Minister Motshekga urging her to ensure that school feeding schemes be continued throughout the lockdown period. Responses from the DBE on this matter have been unsatisfactory and evasive.
Will Motshekga and the education MECs #FixOurSchools now?
It is because Motshekga fought against signing the Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure into law, and because of the resistance to comply with the law and its deadlines, that learners and school staff at thousands of schools do not have access to water, proper toilets or enough classroom space – in 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic and socio-economic crisis.
According to the DBE’s presentation to Parliament, there are 3500 schools requiring emergency water supply. The DBE also plans to provide mobile toilets to schools to replace pit latrines – there are approximately 3700 schools with plain pit latrines (as the only form of sanitation) according to the DBE’s latest National Education Infrastructure Management System (NEIMS) report.
The DBE intends to reduce class sizes to no more than 40 learners per class. However, classrooms in township and rural schools across the country are notoriously overcrowded, with more than 60 learners per class.
Given its track record, skepticism around the DBE’s capacity to implement these ambitious plans can be understood.
“As much as I want to go back to school it’s not safe for everyone. The infrastructure we have, my class doesn’t even have a door. The sanitation? Everything at the girls toilets is a mess and we are overcrowded.” – Eastern Cape Equaliser
“In our school we only have one tap, and that tap sometimes doesn’t provide water. The condition of toilets is another story. They aren’t clean – actually there’s no hygiene. If the whole school resumes classes they’ll be overcrowded but if it’ll be matric only, there’s enough space.” – KwaZulu-Natal Equaliser
“Our school has boreholes but not enough tanks to sustain and hold enough water to be used. We do not have proper toilets but only (plain) pit latrines that should have been changed by the government as they have promised that by now they would have finished with (installing) proper flushing toilets.” – Limpopo Equaliser
“We all want to go back to classes so that teaching and learning can continue and we can finish the curriculum but there is fear of how we are going to maintain “social distancing” because schools that are in townships have the problem of overcrowding. It is the big issue that we are facing as teachers and learners, for example in a class of about 50 learners it is difficult to move around and engage all learners so that we can have a proper lesson. That being said, it will be a big challenge to go back to school and facing the reality of (the lack of) space in classrooms and overcrowded schools, especially those in townships and rural areas.” – Siphosethu Mgqibise, student teacher and EE National Council Post School youth representative
“I really don’t mind going back to school. However, I have 45 learners in my class alone. There is just no way I can have them practice social distancing while some learners don’t have desks and chairs. Some have to share a desk as three learners. Furthermore, our computer lab does not accommodate learners individually on their computers, they have to share because of their numbers.
Because it is a primary school, it will be challenging for us to monitor them (for social distancing) when on the playground.
The DBE proposals… it’s confusing. Let alone the implementation. It’s extremely difficult for us who are working in one of the most disadvantaged communities of Khayelitsha. Some parents are reluctant to send their kids back until the risk is zero.” – Andile Ngqweya, Western Cape teacher
“My question is, will teachers be able to control and make sure that learners follow the precautions? Then what happens when all grades (go) back to school when we are facing overcrowding in some (schools)?” – Rieta Palusha, EE Gauteng parent member
Bridging the gap between learning from home versus the classroom
As dates for returning to school continue to be pushed out, there is a growing emphasis on remote learning – particularly for learners in grades that will only return to school later this year.
Equalisers have expressed that they struggle to learn from home, highlighting the difficulties of studying on their own. Their studies are affected by not being able to communicate with their teachers and peers, they lack learning resources such as textbooks, and have limited access to smartphones and the internet. Equalisers say that there are more resources available for certain subjects, such as Maths and Science, than for others.
Equalisers also say that a crowded living space, and having to do chores in the home, hinders learning. They also express feeling unmotivated to study, and that the lockdown has negatively impacted their mental health.
“Studying online is difficult and also data is expensive. Online classes are in English and sometimes it’s difficult to understand things or even to ask when you don’t, like in schools where you are able to ask the teacher when you don’t understand. Studying at home I am only able to focus on things that I know and I can’t start a chapter that I don’t know or I am struggling in and I also can’t use my phone to study as it is small and it’s disruptive.” – Gauteng Equaliser
“I lack money to buy data and I’m incapable of studying at home as there is no electricity and I have no resources that are efficient enough to assist me. With no electricity, food, and no study material and resources, also no teachers to guide, I can’t learn.” – Eastern Cape Equaliser
“I think I would fail if I continue doing school work at home because I am a slow learner. It is usually my friends and my teachers that are always able to bring me up to speed with my learning. So being at home takes away all my ability to learn.” – Western Cape Equaliser
We must – as learners, school staff and caregivers – demand the following of Motshekga and the education MECs:
- Communication: Motshekga must demonstrate sensitivity to the anxiety that the pandemic is causing the entire school community, by having a clear communication strategy that avoids confusing and contradictory messages and which discloses the scientific evidence that the DBE is relying on to inform its approach.
- Food: Motshekga must present plans to the public on the implications of the phased reopening of schools on the school nutrition programme – both for learners returning to schools and those remaining at home.
- Water and toilets: Motshekga and the MECs must make public comprehensive plans explaining which schools are being provided with emergency water and toilets, and what the timelines are for delivering these services in each province. Weekly progress reports are crucial!
- Class sizes: Motshekga has promised smaller class sizes, but has not inspired confidence around implementation. She must explain how many additional teachers will be appointed in each province, and whether the 400 additional classrooms procured, are enough to meet the actual need.
- Learning: The DBE must plan its curriculum recovery strategy in recognition that many learners are lagging behind on school work. Learning taking place at home must be seen as enrichment, not curriculum coverage.
- Psychosocial support: Learners and teachers returning to school must be provided with psychosocial support, and mechanisms must be explored to enable access for learners and staff who have not returned to school.
- Transport: The capacity of busses and taxis transporting learners to school is supposed to be limited to ensure social distancing, but the provinces are already not providing transport to all learners who qualify for it. Motshekga and education MECs must explain exactly how many additional busses and taxis will be made available per province.
- Personal protective equipment (PPE): Motshekga must make public which schools, in each province, have already received PPE and those still awaiting PPE, and what the timelines are for delivering the necessary equipment (the “non-negotiables”) to all schools.
- Reporting: Each learner and teacher must be made aware of the minimum safety requirements set by the DBE and clear channels must be established through which a failure to meet the standards can be reported.
Noncedo Madubedube (Equal Education General Secretary)
To arrange an interview, contact:
Jay-Dee Cyster (Equal Education Communications Officer) 082 924 1352