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Back to school

Will grades 7 and 12 return to school in June?

By Jennifer Stern

, |

Back to school

Will grades 7 and 12 return to school in June?

By Jennifer Stern

, |

8 min read

At a press briefing on Thursday 30 April, basic education minister Angie Motshekga announced that – if all goes according to plan – school admin staff would go back to work on 18 May, and Grade 7s and Grade 12s may return to school on 1 June.

It sounded nice, but it’s really not that simple, and – as at 18 May – it doesn’t look as if that timeline is going to pan out. But, more importantly, how and when will our children return to schools, and will they be safe when they do?

The planned reopening of public schools

The tentative plan outlined by the minister on 30 April was for school management staff to return to work on 18 May to prepare for the phased-in return of Grade 7 and Grade 12 learners on 1 June.

‘The reason for Grade 12s is obvious, but why should those little Grade 7s go back to school?’ I asked Tony Marshall, Western Cape Deputy Provincial Manager for FEDSAS (Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools) in an exclusive interview with Estate Living.

‘It’s not a one-off,’ he explained. ‘It’s about creating a culture of sanitation and physical distancing.’ The plan, he explained, is that the teachers and other staff will get the highest grade in the school on board and they will, in turn, influence the younger learners when they return. ‘It’s a big deal,’ he explained. ‘Children are very physical, so it will be hard to explain that they can’t hug or high-five – let alone the usual playground rough and tumble.’

Is the reopening of schools safe?

You don’t need an epidemiologist to tell you that kids pick up all kinds of infections at school. You just have to ask a parent, any parent, and they’ll tell you scary tales of how their child contracted anything from the common cold or flu to strep throat or pinkeye, or even – eek, yuk! – head lice. (Of course, their child contracted these things at school, but was never, ever, the source.)

But, seriously, picking up and passing on minor infections is all part of growing up, and it’s something parents just have to accept. But COVID-19 is not minor, so – really – should we be considering sending our kids back to school?

There’s no easy answer to that but, surprisingly, evidence from other parts of the world so far seems to suggest that children are not as susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 as adults. But these not-much-more-than-anecdotal ‘studies’ are from countries in which the HIV infection rate in children is extremely low. Unfortunately, that is not the case here. So – hey, who knows?

But it’s clear Minister Motshekga is well aware that this is likely to be parents’ most pressing concern as, in her address, she emphasised that safety would be the number one priority:

  • all learners and teachers will wear masks at all times
  • all learners and teachers will sanitise hands and have their temperatures checked on arriving at school
  • there will be no desk sharing
  • learners will sanitise hands on entering and leaving classrooms
  • schools will be thoroughly cleaned and sanitised at least once a day.

Also, sadly, it seems all the fun parts of school will be done away with – no sport, no extra-curricular activities, no clubs.

While all these procedures are a jolly good idea, they will not be easy or inexpensive to implement. ‘So,’ said FEDSAS CEO, Paul Colditz, in an interview with Estate Living, ‘the departments of education will be supplying schools with all the sanitisation necessities, and the departments of health, as part of an extended publics works programme (EPWP), will recruit, train and deploy extra cleaners to all schools to assist with sanitation.’ This is not a small undertaking, he added. ‘If you assume two extra cleaners per school, that’s 46,000 people.’ Of course, the bittersweet ‘good’ news is that there are way more than 46,000 unemployed but very capable people who would be delighted to have jobs.

But he was not optimistic: ‘I personally can’t see schools reopening during level four. Perhaps not even level three, but I’m speculating. The decision must be made by cabinet.’ He went on to explain that it would be incredibly difficult to comply with level four social distancing regulations, especially in under-resourced schools.

However, there are some serendipitous health advantages to reopening the schools. Daily screening will contribute to effective detection of SARS-CoV-2 infection, and will also facilitate tracing of contacts. Also, many children go to school, not just to learn, but to eat. The National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) provides daily meals for nearly 9 million children – a large percentage of whom get very little else to eat.

Is the reopening of schools financially viable?

There is no easy way to say this. South Africa is one of the most inequitable countries in the world, and nowhere is that more evident than in the schooling system. The chances are that your child goes to a private school – or perhaps a very well-resourced, well-established ex-Model C, quintile-five school with extensive green sports fields and a long history of excellence – but the majority of South African children go to schools that are, to put it mildly, under-resourced.

The challenges facing resource-constrained schools (some of which don’t even have running water) are obvious. But, because of the way the quintiles are structured, some quintile-four and even quintile-five schools are not in a position to charge fees, so they fall through the cracks. And even fee-paying schools may find their fees base severely eroded as parents face financial challenges due to lockdown regulations. Even more disturbing is the fact that some parents mistakenly assume that school fees are payment for services rendered, which would mean that they do not have to pay them while the schools are closed. However, while parents and school governing bodies (SGBs) of public schools have the right to determine whether fees should be paid, once that decision has been made, paying fees is a statutory obligation. In other words, not paying fees when they are due is illegal. (Of course, exceptions are often made, but they are exceptions.)

This, however, does not apply to private schools, so whether or not parents have to carry on paying fees if their children are not being educated is moot – and depends largely on the actual contract, because not all private schools will necessarily work on the same principles.


Is reopening the schools academically practical and feasible?

Obviously, it is important to continue education and learning, but will it be possible for an already constrained education system to perform adequately under the new stresses that dealing with the pandemic will impose? One person who thinks it won’t is Jonathan Jansen, Distinguished Professor in the Faculty of Education at Stellenbosch University. It’s not just a matter of ‘putting people back in the classrooms and switching on the lights, and we’re back where we started,’ he said in interview on Cape Talk.

In her address on Thursday, the minister suggested that lost time could be made up by shortening the school holidays, but it seems that educators are not convinced. ‘It’s not that simple,’ said Colditz, but Jansen used stronger language in the radio interview; he said the idea is ‘stupid’.

‘It’s not as if teachers are sitting around at home relaxing,’ he explained. ‘They are working really hard, doing assessments, and trying to get as much distance learning done as possible, through every possible means.’

More importantly, as he went on to explain, catching up in the holidays and then quickly writing an exam would constitute cram learning, which is a good strategy for passing exams, but it has no long-term educational benefits.

And, even with distance learning enhanced by technology, it may serve to exacerbate the already untenable inequities in our country. Schools that don’t have bandwidth and laptops for all learners can’t exploit online learning. So, said Jansen, ‘to put it bluntly, the rich get richer and the poor stay further behind.’

What we have here is – like many things – both a challenge and an opportunity. It’s undeniable that schooling will be severely disrupted. But, rather than – to use a palimpsest of mixed metaphors – sweeping it under the carpet and putting a band-aid on it, we can acknowledge it.

If we pretend there is no problem, we will not be motivated to find a solution but, if we accept that – for all except a few lucky learners who have the resources to effectively learn remotely – the 2020 academic year is lost, we can make concrete plans to recoup it.

Perhaps, instead of stressing the system by reopening schools now, educators and policy makers can use the remainder of the year to plan how to effectively reintroduce learners to school next year.

But what about private schools?

Private schools have a double advantage. Not only are they – and most of their learners – in a comfortable position to implement remote learning, they also have very small classes. So, while most of them have been quite successfully continuing with online education, some are keen to get back into the physical classroom because there is far more to school than learning facts and figures.

But level four lockdown applies to all schools, says Colditz. ‘When the minister says public schools may reopen, it is still subject to cabinet approval. And private schools can set their own terms and timetables, so – as long as they comply with the lockdown restrictions – they can reopen.’ But, he continued, ‘there is no way that schools can open during level four. If level four continues past 1 June, it can’t happen. I think we’ll only reopen schools at level three. And we may go back to level five before we reach level three.’

However, on the principle that one should hope for the best while preparing for the worst, many private schools are setting in place some clever strategies and operating procedures in the hope that restrictions will lessen soon, and that learners will be allowed to physically return to school. As well as the obvious sanitisation and distancing strategies, the plan is to restrict contact time by dividing classes into smaller groups and teaching in shifts; while one half of the class is learning online, the other half will be in the classroom. Also, instead of learners moving from class to class, the teachers will move, which will require less change-of-venue sanitising.

In an interview on SAfm, executive director of ISASA, Lebogang Montjane, said: ‘We are preparing to go back as soon as we can, but the situation is quite fluid. Different schools open at different times based on whether they can apply the standard operating procedures … And it also largely depends on where the schools are. Schools in hot spots may not be able to open.’

Of course, remote learning will continue probably for quite a while, so some parents can – if they choose – delay sending their children into the physical classroom.

So let’s just do distance learning

The knee-jerk (and not illogical) response is just to keep the kids at home and do distance learning. The advantages are numerous and obvious, and it is an excellent choice for families that have sufficient financial and socio-educational resources, but it’s not a panacea.

Children of privilege have multi-channel access to various online education opportunities, including some specialist online schools such as Cambrilearn, Impaq and – most recently – Valenture Institute. And, since the school closure, the education departments have moved rapidly to get curriculum material online data-free, but that doesn’t really help learners who do not have internet access, so this initiative has been supplemented with the regular broadcasting of educational material through the SABC’s three television channels and 13 radio stations. While this is a fabulous initiative, accessing it – and the online back-up – may be problematic for many learners. So, perhaps, as well as applauding the initiatives already implemented, we should acknowledge their limitations, and encourage and support their extension and expansion.

So is it happening?

Hardly surprisingly, the actual return of management staff on 18 May has been inconsistent both between and within provinces, and it is clear that – at least in public schools – the supply of personal protective equipment and other necessary supplies is not sufficient to reopen schools safely. And the return of learners on 1 June will be dependent on a host of factors, including where they are situated, and how prepared they are to implement effective hygiene and physical distancing protocols.

It’s a very complex situation with no easy answer. But, as Marshall quips at the end of the interview, ‘the short answer is “nobody knows”, and that’s the answer that nobody wants to hear.’

So what do we do?

Obviously, and naturally, our number one priority is our safety and that of our families. But probably the most important lesson we are learning from COVID-19 is that – even with the highest walls, the most well-guarded gates, and the most up-to-date, state-of-the-art security systems – we cannot isolate ourselves from all risks. We are part of a larger community, and we sink or swim as a community.

Which is why many well-resourced neighbourhoods (and yours may already be among them) are looking beyond their immediate personal needs, and partnering with less fortunate, less well-resourced communities in what have become known as CANs – community action networks. Each network is likely to have its own priorities, but it’s worth looking to the needs of schools, some of which may be marginally able to reopen – whether in June or next January.

And when it’s all back to ‘normal’?

We have short memories. Since load shedding stopped, we keep our geysers on all day, and forget to turn off lights when we leave a room, and, since we dodged Day Zero, we’ve started taking baths again, and gaily watering the roses. But let’s not forget the lessons SARS-CoV-2 is teaching us.

Education doesn’t only take place in the classroom.

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