Schools in South Africa: COVID-Ready… or Risky?

On 19 May, the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, confirmed – as per Cabinet and the NCCC – that independent and public ordinary schools will open on 1 June, including those in metropolitan areas.

The Minister and her team stressed that the decision to re-open schools amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and the proposed measures to protect learners, teachers and other staff, were informed by international best practice and recommendations from the Department of Health.

Despite assurances to the contrary by the Minister, several issues raised during the DBE briefing remain of concern to the IFP.

South African schools have a long history of poor or non-existent water and sanitation provision, and with the dangers posed by the coronavirus, these limitations become even more life-threatening. The IFP calls for a redoubling of efforts to provide permanent water and sanitation solutions for all our learners. Why are there still schools with pit latrines when President Cyril Ramaphosa launched the Sanitation Appropriate for Education (SAFE) initiative in 2018? How long will it take to rid our schools of this scourge, which has already claimed too many innocent victims.

Further, it is cold comfort to hear the Minister and her team assure the people of South Africa that all schools will have water thanks to “just-in-time delivery”, particularly as she herself admitted that the Department has a “poor record on water and sanitation”.

Overcrowding in our schools is yet another ongoing obstacle to quality education. This has now also become a health risk during the COVID-19 pandemic, due to the well-documented danger posed by close contact. Although necessary to ensure the safety of all involved, social distancing in schools might prove to be an insurmountable challenge. If, as the Minister proposed, a class of 60 must be split in three, will there be sufficient teachers? If teachers are available, will there be sufficient budget to pay these additional teachers?

The Minister also shared possible solutions for providing much-needed additional space as more learners return to schools – including the use of community centres and tents. This could mean that learners will be attending classes outside school grounds, creating possible security issues. The IFP therefore calls for careful consideration of these options in relation to the supervision and safety of learners.

When the reallocation of budgets was discussed, the Minister advised that all programmes not directly related to managing the COVID-19 pandemic had been put on hold. Although water and sanitation are rightly to be included in the amended budget, the IFP is concerned that other essential programmes relating to school infrastructure will now be cast aside. What of the remaining mud schools, or the schools which require urgent maintenance in order to ensure the safety of the learners? The right to life, as well as the right to dignity cannot be limited – even during a pandemic.

Another cause for alarm is the devastating cases of vandalism at schools across South Africa, with a reported 1577 schools (463 in KZN alone) falling victim to theft, fire and other destructive acts. We are not reassured by the Minister’s appeal to the public to assist in bringing the perpetrators to justice, nor are we confident that these particular schools will indeed be ready to welcome learners as of 1 June.

Although the IFP is heartened by the news that the Matric Papers are ready, we still harbour much concern for the examination readiness of Grade 12 learners. They will apparently be expected to cover the entire 2020 school curriculum, despite the loss of many weeks of classroom learning. The DBE further advised that, unlike for the other Grades, the Matric curriculum cannot be trimmed. This in itself poses a huge challenge, but what of the learners in rural communities, who have not had access to the same resources during lockdown as their counterparts in the metropolitan areas? If the DBE stands by its promise that “no child shall be left behind”, how will they support these vulnerable Grade 12 learners and ensure that they are on equal footing with their peers?

With the “Countdown” towards school readiness scheduled to begin on 25 May, the IFP calls for daily updates from the Minister and the various MECs for Education.

This will ensure accountability, as well as an opportunity to identify – and address – possible obstacles and risks to the continued health and safety of learners, teachers and other staff. We trust that the newly-appointed consortium of independent monitors will assist with this critical task.

The Minister has offered assurances that the lives of the children will be put first, and the IFP will hold her to her word.

Hon. S Ngcobo, MP
IFP Secretary General
082 902 4508