By: Natasha Archary
Confusion reigns and social media rants flood timelines since the President’s address stating the country will move to Level 3: Lockdown from the 01 June. Further angry sentiments were raised around the decision that schools are to reopen, with Grade 7 and 12 learners set to return simultaneously with the lockdown restrictions lifting.
Up in arms
This all feels like a bad joke, doesn’t it? How do we move from a complete nationwide lockdown with only a few hundred cases in March, to level 3 with the rate of infection peaking currently? And move to have schools reopen to save the academic year?
Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, explains that the initial lockdown was never intended to stop infections altogether, instead, it was to flatten the curve for the healthcare system to cope with infections.
And many believe that the lockdown did little to nothing to assist with that, as South Africa’s rate of infection seemed to only rise steadily since March with hundreds of deaths being reported to date.
The plan for the reopening of schools was approved by the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) and Cabinet. A move that has seen several concerned parties, organizations, unions, and parents worried about the safety of children during this global pandemic.
The National Association of Parents in School Governance on behalf of the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) is hoping for the decision to be reversed. And are calling for stricter lockdown restrictions while strongly opposing the reopening of schools, until protective measures are in place.
Blanketed one-size-fits-all approach
From the outside looking in, it may seem like Cabinet has taken a one-size-fits-all approach to the consideration to reopen schools. Both public and private school institutions are expected to open doors to welcome back the Grade 7 and 12 students on the 01 June.
With school communication to parents sharing the overall reopening for other grades throughout the month. Within 2 weeks all grades are set to return to school, with the little ones in Grade 0 expected back on the 15 June.
We’ve heard our Ministers speaking about the COVID-19 pandemic, calling it difficult to plan around because it’s the first time we’re dealing with something of this magnitude. So, are we just going to go about managing this with a trial and error approach? There is no way every household in the country has the same risk factors or socio-economic ones.
The same for schools. With larger classrooms in public schools, there’s no doubt these will be the hardest hit.
Here’s why the one-size-fits-all approach won’t work:
- Schools in rural and impoverished areas cannot possibly be labeled COVID-compliant. Without basic sanitation, running water, or proper toilet facilities.
- A large majority of families rely on public transport to get their children to and from school. With the protocols for traveling allowing only a smaller number in public transport, this could lengthen a school day for the average learner.
- 1,577 schools were vandalized, robbed, and burnt over the lockdown period. Have these facilities, infrastructure, and equipment been replaced to push for ALL schools to reopen on the 01 June? Because it does seem null and void to stress the importance of the return to school when there is a lack of basics. Don’t you think?
- With larger classrooms in public schools, there’s no doubt these will be the hardest hit.
- This does not negate the safety concerns for parents whose children are in private schools as exposure to external service providers and sporting activities are still risk factors.
- With an increase in the unemployment rate since COVID-19 hit the country, most households face tough economic hardships, how are parents supposed to meet the costs for schooling until they find a source of income? Transport fees, stationery requirements, uniforms, packed lunches, extra-curricular activities?
Has the Department of Basic Education thought this through?
How the rest of the world compares
COVID-19 lockdown measures have seen schools either partially or fully closed across 186 countries worldwide, according to UNESCO.
Since the start of May, countries like Norway, China, and Japan, have reopened schools. With Denmark welcoming back the younger pupils ahead of their higher grades. In France, classrooms have been capped at 10 students for pre-primary and 15 students for other age groups.
Sydney was forced to close 2 school facilities after students tested positive for the virus this week.
What schools in other countries have done differently to South Africa, was that they reopened schools ONLY once there were significant drops in the rate of infection. Not when new infections were at their peak.
We’ve heard of measures being put in place to ensure that proper screenings will be conducted at schools once learners return on the 01 June. What are these measures? As it stands, not every mall, public facility, corporate, or stores in the country, are doing mandatory temperature checks. Which alone is alarming.
All that South Africans are being offered are hand sanitizers. Is this the measure that will give parents peace of mind?
Home school warning
The Governing Body Foundation (GBF) has advised parents to reconsider taking their children out of school and opting for homeschooling. Stating it will have implications later, with the warning that a child may be denied access back to the school next year or if the parent decides to send their child back later in the year.
While President Ramaphosa was adamant that parents will not be forced to adhere to the call for students to return to school, it’s not free-will if it feels like we’re being given an ultimatum, is it?
Schools have done well with remote learning during the lockdown, with many offering parents the option to continue with online learning. However, Minister Angie Motshekga has made it clear that if a child is to continue with homeschooling, one would need to register with the department for it. Once arrangements for homeschooling have been made with the department, parents will be supported if the guidelines are followed. Parents will then need to deregister the child for homeschooling and re-enroll for the child to physically attend school again.
Complications that South African parents don’t need right now. Instead of reassuring parents that the department has a plan to tread these treacherous times with a smooth transition for both parents and children, we’re met with a nonchalant stance about placements not being guaranteed next year.
If that is the case and this is the fight to be treated fairly during this humanitarian crisis, more parents may just opt for homeschooling as a permanent solution. Those who do not have the means necessary, however, may be forced to have their children return.
Where’s the silver lining?
At this point, social media rants and support groups calling for a #SAYNOTOSCHOOL reopening seem futile. South African parents have been told to expect small outbreaks in schools by Professor Salim Karim.
If this happens and innocent children succumb to the virus, who takes responsibility? If at all. Or will parents be met with a shrug of the shoulders and the onus of responsibility falling on their shoulders?
Where is the silver lining with this decision? That our children pass the academic year? What is the weight of the academic year versus the cost of life?
Granted, there are no guarantees when we send our children to school in general. Pre-lockdown there have been numerous reports of violence and tragedies occurring in South African schools. But to leave things to chance where you know with absolute certainty that there is an impending threat is different, surely.
Would it not be more practical for our government to look for ways to create smarter social systems for health and education? Instead of reintegrating into a system that barely worked in the first place. Because the reality is that Cabinet cannot promise our children’s safety and the fact that they have not explored alternatives, raises questions about the months to follow.
The world will be watching our country on the 01 June and thereafter to see how we fair and what the numbers say.
Recent developments have led to the reopening of schools being delayed. Please stay tuned to Kaya 959 for further developments.