Confusion and fear mark return to school

Although the number of Covid-19 infections continues to increase, the Department of Basic Education is preparing for another cohort of learners to go back to school.

Another group of learners in various grades returned to the classrooms on 6 July 2020 as the education department continues with its phased approach to get children back into schools. It seems the academic year just might be saved. But it hasn’t been easy. 

Confusion has marked the reopening. Problems persist in proper sanitation, the allocation of personal protective equipment and fumigating schools. Recently, Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga issued new directives for the phasing-in of learners in various grades and across different types of schools, including those for learners with severe intellectual disabilities and autism. But she also acknowledged that the sector needed more time to ensure schools complied with health and safety standards. “It became clear that the sector was at different levels of readiness,” she said. 

The Eastern Cape Department of Education asked for more time to prepare following a surge in coronavirus cases in the province. “To allow the Provincial Department of Education and the Provincial Department of Health time to align its current plans to address the expected increase in infection within the province, both departments require additional time to allocate a health care professional to each school within the province.”

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Noting the shortage of clean running water at schools, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) asked Motshekga to reconsider the reopening: “Most observations highlighted the shortage or inadequacy of water and sanitation as well as personal protective equipment and some schools even reported that they had not received the training needed to help deal with the pandemic.”

Despite efforts to protect teachers and learners from contracting Covid-19, more and more of them have tested positive for the virus, even as the basic education department prepares for the next phase of returning learners to schools. On 27 June, the department issued a provincial breakdown showing the number of affected schools.

Massive disruptions

The basic education department has postponed the May/June examinations, a crucial milestone in the teaching calendar. There are plans to merge the mid-year exams with the November ones, something unprecedented. The department has promised to provide concrete details on the merger soon.

The department has also had to contend with the 183 schools that were vandalised around the country since the Covid-19 lockdown. “The learners from these schools will be the hardest hit as there could be delays in the implementation of the curriculum recovery plan,” the department said in a statement.

Feeding schemes

Human rights organisations have taken the basic education department to court for not providing meals to pupils under its National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) during the lockdown. “Section 27 and the Equal Education Law Centre filed urgent papers in the North Gauteng High Court on Friday, 12 June 2020, in a desperate attempt to address the dire situation in poor schools where nine million learners are not receiving food at school as the Covid-19 lockdown put a stop to their only meal for the day,” writes Zukiswa Pikoli in Daily Maverick.

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In explaining why the department suspended the school feeding scheme, Motshekga said in a media briefing on 26 March: “This is a complex matter to resolve especially when learners are not in school.” She added that the education department would join forces with the Department of Social Development to find a solution. “The thinking is that one member of the family will be allowed to collect food parcels once a week … for the use of the entire family.” But the distribution of food parcels has not yet been effectively rolled out. 

The SAHRC has also been vocal about the need for the school feeding programme to be reinstated. “On 19 May 2020, the Department of Basic Education informed the Commission that when schools reopened, the NSNP would recommence for all grades, and not only for qualifying learners in grades seven and 12.” Whether this will be the case remains to be seen. 

Visually impaired pupils neglected

Blind SA, which represents 30 member organisations with 1 200 blind and partially sighted members across the country, believes the education department has done little to address the needs of visually impaired learners during the lockdown.

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According to Blind SA, the department promised to provide furnished mobile units but has not done so. “The majority of learners come from the lower economic groups and these families are unable to purchase specialised assistive devices and adapted technology to assist them in their online or home-based education programmes. As a result, the e-learning platforms the departments [of basic and provincial education] produced were not accessible to these learners,” the organisation said in a statement on 19 June. 

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