1 February 2022
Media statement: Equal Education and EE Law Centre welcome the full-time return to classrooms, as we continue to push the government to show more urgency in fixing our schools!
Equal Education (EE) and the Equal Education Law Centre (EELC) welcome Cabinet’s decision to return all learners to classrooms full-time, which we have been calling for. For almost two years, learners have not been in classrooms every day, with some only at school once or twice a week. But while we return to the “normal” timetable, we must, as school communities, push even harder for the government to urgently fix the systemic problems in our schools, and to ensure easy access to the COVID vaccine for learners!
EE’s learner members have explained how difficult it is when they are not at school every day – it negatively affects their access to school meals and to counselling, it has limited their interactions with friends and their ability to learn. For many learners, their schools provide a safe environment.
As 2021 matric learner Perseverance Mathebula explained: “It was hard [in Grade 11] because we never got enough chance to study… Studying at home ain’t easy… We also didn’t have enough time regarding our school schedule”.
The rotational timetable system was meant to be a temporary, emergency response to Covid-19, to accommodate cases where schools did not have enough classrooms for there to be physical distancing between learners. But two years later, what was meant to be temporary became the new normal. Learners at many well-resourced schools were able to return to classrooms full-time, because they could comply with Covid-19 rules – while learners in most under-resourced schools, continued to miss out on class time because of overcrowded classrooms and a lack of access to toilets and water. The Department of Basic Education (DBE) estimates that 75% of learning was lost in 2020 as a result of interrupted and reduced learning time.
“It was indeed a tough year,” 2021 matric learner Phashe Ntuli said about his Grade 11 year. “Cause we had to go to school three or two times per week. Meaning we couldn’t cover everything during that period”.
In July 2021, the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) recommended that learners return to school full-time because the harm caused by rotational timetabling outweighed the health benefit of smaller class sizes. Despite this recommendation, as well as new medical evidence about how the virus spread and the availability of vaccines for parents, teachers and learners over 12 years of age, rotational timetabling continued.
Recognising all of this, EE and EELC have been advocating for an end to rotation since the middle of last year. Working alongside other civil society organisations we have, among other things:
- Submitted comment on various versions of the DBE Directions on managing Covid-19 in schools, throughout last year, emphasising the importance of policies that protect learners’ time in schools.
- Participated in multiple meetings with the National Education Collaboration Trust, Parliamentary committees and the DBE, to discuss strategies that could be used to safely bring rotation to an end.
- Publicly highlighted (see here and here) the effects of the rotational timetable system on learners and calling for it to be brought to an end.
- Written to provincial education departments in October 2021 requesting their plans to ensure that all learners are back at school full time. We only received a response from the Western Cape Education Department, which we met with.
- Submitted requests in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) for the plans of the DBE and MECs to support schools in ensuring the safe and full-time return of learners to schools.
- Published an open letter in January 2021 to the Ministers of Basic Education, Health, and Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, emphasising the urgency of bringing an end to the rotational timetable system.
Ensuring the safety of school communities
The DBE and provincial education departments must ensure that the full-time return of learners is carried out safely. EE and EELC have repeatedly urged government to act with urgency in addressing the lack of infrastructure that prevented full-time return in the first place, such as too few classrooms and toilets.
Access to vaccines can also make classrooms safer. Government must urgently roll out vaccine literacy programmes at schools and ensure that vaccines are easily accessible for learners who are older than 12 years, through for instance, voluntary vaccination pop-up sites at schools.
We recognise that the virus is evolving. However, should there be more waves of infections, we encourage the DBE and Cabinet to only close schools as a last resort and to use its Risk Adjusted Strategy (RAS) to ensure that teaching and learning can continue in schools in parts of the country where community infection rates are low or at zero, while allowing the same schools to later close when transmission in those communities becomes high. This will assist the department and schools to respond appropriately where there are peaks in infection rates, without risking the well-being of learners and teachers.
Note to editors: If quoting directly from this statement, please quote Equal Education and Equal Education Law Centre.
To arrange a media interview, contact:
Jay-Dee Cyster (Equal Education Communications Officer) firstname.lastname@example.org or 082 924 1352.
Tshego Phala (EE Law Centre Executive Director) Tshego@eelawcentre.org.za or 074 479 9997