24 July 2020
Equal Education media statement: National and provincial education departments must get their act together while schools are closed
Equal Education (EE) cautiously supports the decision to temporarily close public schools, as the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and the provincial education departments (PEDs) work to address legitimate and serious concerns raised by teachers and learners about some schools being unsafe and inadequately supported to re-open. We welcome the confirmation from President Cyril Ramaphosa, that the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) will continue to provide food to learners while at home over the next four weeks, to lessen the detrimental impact of school closures on learners. The initial phasing back of only grades 7 and grade 12 learners will relieve some of the pressure on schools, that was brought about by the return of more grades earlier this month.
However, as a movement of learners, we are still very concerned about the impact of extended school closures on children. We urge the education departments to respond with absolute urgency and to not squander this opportunity to put crucial safety measures and support structures in place at all schools.
It is baffling that the DBE has failed to implement a risk-adjusted strategy that is responsive to conditions in schools and communities to help inform the re-opening and closing of schools. Furthermore, the DBE’s Standard Operating Procedures have not provided sufficient guidance on the complexities of managing the Covid-19 pandemic in schools.
The phased re-opening of schools since 8 June has been an uphill battle, with many schools facing non-delivery of personal protective equipment (PPE), a lack of access to water, inadequate and undignified toilets and difficulty in maintaining physical distancing in classrooms. By 25 June, some schools had still not reopened, with access to water cited as a major challenge and in some provinces the phasing in of further grades was held back.
Over the last two weeks, teachers’ unions have called for schools to close to allow the country to get past the Covid-19 peak and winter. In a recent statement, five teachers’ unions noted that many schools lacked the necessary resources to keep learners and teachers safe, and that the DBE’s Covid-19 management guidelines did not provide adequate guidance.
Teachers’ concerns must not be dismissed and they ought not be vilified for being fearful of returning to schools that are poorly resourced, poorly supported and ill-prepared. We understand the fears and anxieties that confront teachers as they attempt to navigate the school environment, while also supporting learners and having to facilitate learning. The mental and emotional toll is significant.
At the same time, we must also be cognisant that school closures are detrimental for many learners. In the same way that opening schools requires plans to be in place, closing schools must also happen with the necessary planning to protect learners and their right to basic education.
Priorities while schools are closed
Access to meals
In April and June, EE conducted a survey of over 300 EE learner members (Equalisers) on the impact of the lockdown period on them. The survey was not randomised and was limited to the five provinces in which EE is organised.
The findings revealed the incredibly difficult circumstances many learners faced while at home. As many as 37% of learners indicated that they were not able to access enough food while schools were closed. The lack of access to enough food had a negative impact on learners’ physical and mental wellbeing, resulting in them struggling to focus and feeling hungry, angry, drained and depressed.
President Ramaphosa last night confirmed that the full roll out of the NSNP will continue, in compliance with the recent court judgment won by EE and the school governing bodies of two Limpopo schools. Over nine million learners rely on the NSNP and for some learners, it provides their only guaranteed meal of the day.
The DBE and PEDs must ensure that all beneficiaries receive meals despite being at home and must clearly communicate to learners and parents how to access these meals while schools are closed. Where learners live far from schools, they must either be able to receive food at schools that are closer to their homes, or already publicly funded scholar transport must be made available for deliveries or to take learners to school. In addition, the DBE and PEDs bear the responsibility of monitoring the implementation of the NSNP, and supporting those schools that may struggle with providing learners with meals.
Supporting learners at home and curriculum recovery
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.
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 and 50% said affording data is an issue. Learners in higher grades – grades 11 and 12 – were more likely to have their own device than learners in the lower grades.
These learning challenges have contributed to great anxieties among learners, who have affirmed that getting an education is important to them, even at this difficult time.
With the impending school closures, it is unreasonable to expect that traditional learning will continue while learners are at home. While the DBE has zero-rated websites and arranged for broadcast lessons, it must recognise that these are not workable solutions for all learners. Even when schools reopen, learning will continue to be affected.
The DBE must urgently and clearly communicate the support that it will provide to advance learning. There needs to be assurance that caregiver support, textbooks and worksheets will be made available to learners. We welcome the proposal that the academic year will be extended beyond 2020, which means that it is vital that the DBE considers whether existing curriculum recovery plans are still viable, communicates publicly its plans in relation to progression at the end of the year and ensures that plans are not detrimental to learners from poor and working class communities.
School infrastructure and PPE
Over the next four weeks the education departments must ensure that all schools have access to adequate infrastructure and access to PPE. Schools must have access to enough toilets, to a reliable water supply and to adequate classroom space. Notably, some special needs schools have raised concerns that PPE provided to them is not suitable for teaching and learning in these schools (for example, lip reading is compromised when wearing an ordinary cloth mask).
Risk-adjusted approach to opening and closing schools
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has advised that a key determinant of opening schools is the rate of Covid-19 community transmissions. Despite the development of a risk-adjusted strategy by the DBE, which identifies schools in hotspot areas and determines whether they should be closed, the department has conceded that it has not been implemented by provinces! This is largely due to the fact that the DBE intended for the strategy to be a guide that informs the decisions of PEDs rather than one that outlines mandatory responses to surging infection rates.
With considerable confusion regarding protocols that must be followed, it would be worthwhile for the DBE and Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs to consider including the existing strategy into directives that can make it mandatory for all provinces to implement it. This would see teaching and learning take place in schools in parts of the country where community transmission is low to non-existent, allowing the same schools to later close when community transmission becomes high. Implementing this strategy could also help manage the dual fears of learners, parents and teachers regarding both school safety and the perception of learners that they are falling behind in their studies.
In a meeting with education stakeholders yesterday, the DBE revealed the department is in the process of developing a system that offers real-time Covid-19 statistics within the basic education sector. This platform must be open to the public. This could be an important tool to observe whether provinces are responding appropriately to spikes in community transmissions and confirmed cases.
The DBE has recognised that high levels of psychological stress in communities have understandably spilled over into schools. On multiple occasions it has acknowledged that it has not been prepared for the rising psychosocial needs of the school community. It has emphasised the need to mobilise all departmental resources, capacitate education district offices and work with the Department of Social Development (DSD) towards the adequate provision of psychosocial support services. Urgent efforts must now be made to implement plans for support to learners and teachers.
Teachers, parents and learners have all bemoaned the DBE’s Standard Operating Procedures, which do not provide clear guidance on managing the Covid-19 pandemic. Confusion around processes to be followed when there is a positive case in a school and on the considerations that inform decisions about school closure, has heightened fears and tensions.
The DBE must develop clear guidelines that adequately support school staff and that are clearly communicated to learners and parents. This has become more urgent as the capacity of health officials to support school staff with these decisions is increasingly limited.
The DBE has admitted to its failure to address particular problems during the lockdown and when schools were first re-opened, and indicated in a meeting with education stakeholders yesterday, that it has compiled a list detailing those shortcomings. The DBE should make this list public and explain its plans to address the problems identified.
The pressure of this moment is immense and the systemic failures of education departments have left us ill-prepared to weather the storm. The fact that private schools will remain open, has painfully highlighted the stubborn inequality in the system. We can no longer afford to see officials drag their feet in resolving the issues that have led to anxieties and frustrations amongst school communities. We need to see clear plans, communication and the urgent delivery of all the necessary materials, in order to protect the right to basic education for all learners.
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. We will continue to agitate for our longstanding demands on school infrastructure, scholar transport and school safety to be met. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org