17 February 2021
Equal Education media statement: Western Cape State of the Province Address must put school psychosocial support, safety and learner admissions on top of the agenda!
Today, as Western Cape Premier Alan Winde delivers the State of the Province Address (SOPA), we call on him to recognise the immense impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on education in the province, and to put school psychosocial support, safety and learner admissions on top of the agenda! Right now, the voices of the most vulnerable must be prioritised and elevated. The work of the Premier’s office is to create a platform for these voices to be heard and experiences to be reckoned with, and we demand that Premier Winde do so by addressing the most pressing concerns in education brought about by the pandemic.
Remote learning and overcrowded classrooms
For years, EE members in the Western Cape have highlighted the dangers of learners and teachers attending public schools that are overcrowded, unclean, unsafe and undignified. The pandemic has not only laid these conditions bare, but has worsened them. Learners from disadvantaged homes and communities have been disproportionately affected by schools being suddenly closed or being closed for longer than usual, because they could not easily learn from home without the necessary resources to do so – and in some cases with additional household responsibilities placed on them. This is in contrast with private schools that are always able to open early and safely weeks before public schools. These public school learners carry the anxiety and burden of competing with private school learners under very harsh conditions. We saw the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) eagerly call for schools to reopen without proper engagement with public school communities. In many public schools, personal protective equipment (PPE) is limited, social distancing is impossible because of overcrowded classrooms, and teacher shortages have increased as we lose teachers to COVID-19. Rotating timetables, which prevent sufficient learning, are not a sustainable solution. Long before the pandemic, we repeatedly called on and engaged with the WCED on the need to immediately provide properly built additional classrooms because of the dangers of temporary structures.
The pandemic has affected the mental and physical wellbeing of learners, teachers and communities profoundly. School closures have limited learners’ access to learning and social interaction, which are crucial to their wellbeing. COVID-19 has also heightened anxiety, fear, depression and frustration.
We were saddened to learn that 17 learners in the Western Cape commited suicide in 2020. Public schools have an overwhelming number of learners needing counselling and other psychosocial support, with school-based support teams and district-based support teams unable to meet the demand. In July 2020, 39 EE Western Cape learner members participated in a survey on their experiences of education during lockdown. Shockingly, more than two thirds of these learners said that there is no one at their schools that they can speak to if they feel scared or sad about something happening at home, at school or in their lives. The unnecessary With this knowledge, we continue to lead the call for the WCED to make psychosocial support an urgent priority.
Admissions and unplaced learners
In the Western Cape, there is a concerning trend that high numbers of learners are unplaced at the start of the school year, especially for grades one and eight. Every year we are approached by desperate parents seeking assistance with the enrolment of their children.
While most learners returned to school after the closures last year, many remained at home due to comorbidities, or their parents/guardians choosing to keep them at home. The DBE’s COVID-19 Directions provide for the exemption of learners from compulsory school attendance but we noticed that many parents/guardians did not apply for exemption because they were unaware of this requirement. Many learners are being passed to the next grade while feeling that they aren’t meeting the curriculum demands. The WCED has previously had one of the highest numbers of unplaced learners of all the provinces. Given this pattern and the consequences of COVID-19, it was therefore to be expected that the Western Cape will again this year have a large number of unplaced learners. It came as no surprise that on Sunday 14 February the DBE reported that the WCED has 2 440 unplaced Grade one learners and 5 896 Grade eight unplaced learners. We were concerned about the impact this would have on learner admissions this year and raised this with the WCED in a letter in October last year and their response was “budget constraints”. We urge the Western Cape government to come up with a plan for unplaced learners. For the WCED to use budget constraints as an excuse for inaction is unacceptable – education is an immediately realisable right!
A safety plan
The Western Cape is one of the most unsafe provinces in the country and according to the quarterly crime statistics for July 2020 to September 2020, the province accounts for ten of the top 20 police stations for murder in South Africa. This reality does not suddenly get suspended because of the pandemic. Our schools mirror our communities. As such, what happens in our schools reflects what is happening in our communities, and what happens in our schools is a mirror of our communities. As EE we have always maintained that we cannot have safe schools in unsafe communities.
The deployment of the army and law enforcement during the lockdown showed us that the post-apartheid government has not broken with the apartheid regime tactics of addressing violence in poor black communities through violence. The budget for safety must be used to address our long standing demands. The budget allocations for the Premier’s Safety Plan were reviewed and shifts were made to accommodate COVID-19 initiatives. Premier Winde must provide an update on the Safety Plan and explain the implications of the shifts in its budget. The deadline set by the Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure for perimeter security to be provided to schools was last year, and our schools still do not have what they need for a safe learning and teaching environment.
Note to editors: If quoting directly from this statement, please quote Ntsiki Dlulani (Head of EE Western Cape) and Chwayita Wenana (Deputy Head of EE Western Cape).
To arrange a media interview, contact:
Jay-Dee Cyster (Equal Education Communications Officer) firstname.lastname@example.org or 082 924 1352