19 June 2021
Joint media statement: Equal Education and Equal Education Law Centre welcome the DBE’s case-by-case approach to managing COVID-19 infections in schools and celebrate the announcement of vaccinations for all school staff
Equal Education (EE) and Equal Education Law Centre (EELC) welcome that the Department of Basic Education (DBE) is taking a careful, case-by-case approach to managing COVID-19 infections in schools. We believe this is in line with its risk-adjusted strategy and significantly helps to manage fears around school safety, while protecting learners from the harmful impacts of not being at school every day. We also celebrate Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga’s announcement today during a media briefing, that our country’s 582 000 school staff will have the opportunity to be vaccinated by 8 July.
We have since last year appealed to the DBE to implement the risk-adjusted strategy so that teaching and learning can continue in schools in parts of the country where community transmission is low or at zero, allowing the same schools to later close when community transmission becomes high. Despite the DBE having developed a comprehensive digital system to guide the implementation of this strategy, no province has implemented it yet! Minister Motshekga should now ensure that provinces use this strategy to guide the case-by-case approach to opening and closing of schools.
Protecting the time that learners are able to spend in school is vital. EE’s learner members have explained how difficult it is when schools are closed – affecting their access to school meals and counselling, limiting their interactions with friends and their ability to learn and hurting their mental health. For many learners, their schools provide a safe environment.
The research on COVID-19 in schools, and the harmful impacts of schools being closed
According to both the NIDS-CRAM Surveys and some international studies, schools do not appear to pose a high risk of COVID-19 outbreaks. Minister Motshekga emphasised this point by stating that only 100 out of 25 500 schools have been “disrupted” by COVID-19 infections. In addition, the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) has stated that “the first and second [COVID-19] waves were unrelated to school closings and openings.” If the rollout takes place as planned, vaccinations will also ensure that the risk to teachers decreases.
In a presentation made to Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Basic Education on 1 June 2021, the DBE explained that on average, 75% of the year’s learning was lost in 2020. The DBE’s 2021 Annual Performance Plan shows that it will take years to catch up on learning losses, with serious consequences for the skills learners are able to obtain over the course of their schooling. The consequences of schools being closed for long periods of time and a rotating timetable will be with South Africa for years.
In March 2021, EE surveyed 337 learners across the five provinces we organise in, about their schooling experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey found that while 91% of the learners who qualify for the NSNP were receiving meals when physically attending school, 50% of learners reported that they were not getting meals on days that they were at home due to the rotating timetable system. This, despite our victory in court last year that ordered the DBE and provincial education departments to provide meals to all learners who qualify for the NSNP, whether they are in classrooms or at home.
When learners do not have access to academic support, they lose confidence in their ability to learn. In April 2020, 70% of learners told EE they felt they were unable to learn on their own. At that time, only 44% of learners reported that they received workbooks or worksheets to take home – key materials that enable learning to take place.
The pandemic has caused fear and anxiety among learners, yet access to psychosocial support has been limited. In a July 2020 survey, nearly half of the learners (46.8%) who responded told us that there is no one they can talk to at school if they feel scared or sad about something happening at home, at school, or in their lives. Worryingly, 51.4% of learners said that no one at school explained to them how they can get help if they are sad or scared.
Access to personal protective equipment, proper school infrastructure and school meals
Minister Motshekga did not give an update on whether schools have enough personal protective equipment (PPE), or enough water, toilets or classrooms for learning to take place safely. This is especially important as primary school learners return to school every day in the third term.
The 2021 National Education Infrastructure Management System (NEIMS) report shows that there are 2 130 schools still using plain pit latrines as their only form of toilets, while the water supply at 5 836 schools is unreliable.
These problems should have been resolved before COVID-19 hit, but government has been slow to comply with the Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure. While emergency interventions such as mobile toilets may be necessary now, they should not come at the expense of building permanent and proper infrastructure to prevent a delay in the full time return to schools.
The DBE’s Directions for schools around COVID-19
EE and EELC are encouraged by the DBE’s latest set of Directions, which determine that all primary school learners return to school full time. The foundation phase of schooling in particular is critical. It is in these grades that basic learning skills must be acquired. All later learning is built on this aptly named stage of schooling.
Our submission to the DBE on the draft Directions – before they were finalised – proposed that provincial education departments prioritise providing extra resources to those schools which are unable to return to full-time timetable. We also proposed that the provincial head of department develop a register of those schools that are unable to return to a full-time timetable, to ensure that there is oversight and that schools get the help that they need to move to full-time teaching.
While we are glad that the DBE took our advice, we are concerned that the Directions exclude plans for the full time return of high school learners and do not make provision for oversight and support regarding when and how high schools implement rotating and platooning timetables.
Government must not allow COVID-19 to continue to widen the gap in our education system. Interventions that are responsive to the needs of our schools and that ensure equity must be implemented. The DBE and provincial education departments must make sure the system informing their risk-adjusted approach is accessible to the public. The vaccination of school staff is critical and we will monitor the rollout.
We will continue to fight 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 make quality teaching and learning possible.
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