6 July 2020
Equal Education media statement: Systemic challenges must be urgently resolved to enable all schools to safely re-open, alongside more frequent and detailed Covid-19 compliance reports accessible to all learners, caregivers and school staff
Equal Education (EE) is relieved by the Department of Basic Education’s (DBE) decision to reduce the number of grades returning to schools today, but we warn the education departments that systemic challenges must urgently be attended to. While the DBE asserted in its Directions, issued late last month, that grades R to 3, 6, 10 and 11 would be returning to school, it was announced last week that schools would only further re-open to three grades. The lower number of learners returning will certainly alleviate some of the pressure on provinces that have struggled to put the necessities in place to curb the spread of Covid-19 and to adequately support learners and school staff.
While this decision has effectively reduced the proportion of learners returning to school from about 52% to 35%, the new cohort will more than double the number of learners currently in school, resulting in schools having to manage additional administrative and logistical challenges.
It has already been an uphill battle with only grades 7 and 12 returning. Since schools re-opened on 8 June 2020, various provinces have reported problems such as the non-delivery of personal protective equipment (PPE), lack of access to water, inadequate access to toilets and difficulty in maintaining physical distancing in classrooms. As was reported by the education departments to the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) on 25 June, some schools, particularly those in rural provinces, have been unable to open, with access to water cited as a major challenge.
Very disappointingly, Minister Motshekga’s briefing yesterday did not provide the same level of detail on school readiness as her previous briefing on 1 June, before the first cohort of learners returned to school. While Motshekga yesterday assured the country that the basics are largely in place, most Education MECs failed to present sufficient information on the management of Covid-19 in schools to date, and on the progress that has been made in preparing schools to receive more learners.
Findings of learner surveys on learning from home and re-opening schools
Over the past few months we have conducted two learner surveys: one of over 300 EE learner members (Equalisers) on school closures, and another which received 485 unique learner responses from 133 schools on returning to school. Both surveys were not randomised and limited to the five provinces that EE organises in.
The first survey revealed the incredibly difficult circumstances many learners faced while at home, including lack of access to food, challenges with learning at home and on their own, and battling with the impact of the lockdown on their mental health. Learners expressed wanting schools to be re-opened in a safe manner and needing education departments to support them with learning resources while at home.
Of the learners returning to school, over 70% reported that all Covid-19 essentials were in place at their school, including screening processes, social distancing in classrooms, access to clean toilets, access to water and soap or sanitiser, as well as learners and teachers wearing masks for the entire day.
Overall, the majority of learners within our sample, 80%, reported that they want to be at school, while 20% said they want to be at home. Disaggregated by province, the same trend was visible, with the exception of Kwazulu-Natal where 49% of learners wanted to be at home and 51% wanted to be at school.
Learners reported overwhelming access to masks, with 99% saying they wore a mask at school. Of these learners, 86% reported receiving the mask they were wearing from school. In addition 94% of learners reported that all learners and teachers at their school wore masks, while 96% of learners said they were screened before entering their school.
Approximately 97% of learners reported having access to water at school and 92% said they had access to clean and safe toilets. Provincially, the lowest reported access was in the Eastern Cape, with 13% of learners reporting not having access to a clean and safe toilet. Nearly 100% of learners reported having access to soap and hand sanitiser at school. This was unusual for some learners, and they expressed surprise that their toilets were clean, had toilet paper, and that they now had access to soap. 98% of learners reported that all their classes had less than 40 learners. 82.5% of learners stated that their school practiced physical distancing all of the time, with 16.7% reporting physical distancing was practiced only some of the time and 0.8% answering that physical distancing was practiced none of the time.
It is important to note that these surveys do not provide an evaluation of school readiness, but rather give a sense of the experience of some learners as grades 7 and 12 returned to school. Furthermore, it is likely that provinces were able to prepare for the return of a small cohort of learners, but will experience significant challenges in relation to PPE, infrastructure and ensuring physical distancing, as more learners return.
EE also spoke to 42 principals in five provinces, most of whom noted that the return of more learners would pose significant challenges. Only 10 of the principals we surveyed at the time said they would be ready to accommodate the return of the next group of learners.
EE will continue to monitor conditions in the schools we are organised in. Our next round of surveys will also probe access to psychosocial support. Last week, we again called on Minister Motshekga and the Education MECs to ensure that teachers and learners are provided with easily accessible psychosocial support. The mental and emotional toll on school staff is particularly heavy. The national and provincial education departments ought to report to the public on the various ways in which the wellbeing of learners and school staff will be prioritised.
Support for children learning from home
As the return of grades are pushed further back, and while some schools remain closed due to a lack of Covid-19 essentials or because of positive Covid-19 cases, it is becoming increasingly important to support learning at home and to adjust assessment expectations for the year.
Among the demands put forward at our Children’s Conference last week, was for printed learning materials to be made available to learners who have not yet returned to school, and for access to teachers. Our Equaliser survey, which was administered during lock down and a month after schools closed revealed the challenges of trying to learn from home.
A majority of Equalisers that we spoke to, about 55%, expressed that they would not be able to do homework or assignments at home if school closures continued. While 70% of learners did not feel confident enough to learn on their own without support, only 37% had heard from a teacher since schools closed. Only 44% said they were given workbooks or worksheets to take home during lockdown.
Minister Motshekga yesterday noted that there were 127 online learning resources that could be accessed data-free, but this is not a substitute for a teacher or for printed learning material – particularly for learners without access to devices such as smartphones or computers
Learners said that they found it difficult to navigate online platforms and lamented that most resources were in English, and not their mother tongue. Around 65% of the Equalisers we spoke to said they had access to the internet at home, but around 25% of this group said they struggle with network connection problems. Learners in higher grades – grades 11 and 12 – were much more likely to have their own device than learners in lower grades.
While the Minister, last night referred to the use of broadcast media such as television and radio to support learners who are not yet back in school, our conversations with Equalisers during lockdown revealed some challenges. Learners said they struggled to concentrate, that the lessons moved at a rapid rate, that the content was new and unfamiliar and that the sessions were not interactive enough.
Worryingly, of the 42 principals we spoke to prior to the re-opening of schools on 8 June, only nine said they had plans in place to support learning from home.
Education inequalities prior to and beyond Covid-19
While the focus in the current moment has been on Covid-19 compliance, most learners will return to schools that face the same inequalities that existed before the pandemic. The education departments should have addressed school infrastructure challenges by complying with the legally binding Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure, but have failed to do so.
The recent tabling of the supplementary budget, which sought to address Covid-19 related expenditure, dealt a blow to the education sector. We are extremely concerned about the outlook for basic education now and in the long-term. Despite facing demonstrable funding shortfalls before the Covid-19 crisis, basic education has not been provided with new funds to cope with Covid-19. This is symptomatic of government’s commitment to austerity budgeting despite a massive socio-economic crisis. The recent cuts to education funding will have an impact on the right to basic education and equality for learners across the country for years to come.
We will continue to agitate for our longstanding demands on school infrastructure, scholar transport and school safety to be met, to ensure that the right to basic education is realised for all learners. Schools must not just be Covid-19 compliant, they must be environments that protect the dignity and safety of learners and school staff, and that are conducive to quality teaching and learning.
To arrange an interview, contact:
Jay-Dee Cyster (Equal Education Communications Officer) 082 924 1352 or firstname.lastname@example.org