As 1.5 million South Africans prepare to rejoin the economy after the extended lockdown, parents are still awaiting clarity on when students can return to school and university.
The majority of the country’s schools and universities were closed due to social distancing measures more than a week before the country’s five-week lockdown came into effect in late March.
While the education department was expected to provide an update on these institutions on Monday (27 April), the meeting was postponed until later in the week as government prepares for the new Level 4 restrictions.
However, basic education spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga said that the decision on a return to learning will be dependent on the daily number of coronavirus cases in South Africa.
“At this stage, we are tracking the infection rate of the coronavirus. We are monitoring the behaviour of the people in relation to the regulations. We said from the start that compliance with regulations would determine the next course of action,” he told TimesLive.
“The department had never published a date for the re-opening of schools. We are in a situation where we are expected to reconcile clashing views into a position that will serve the interest of everyone.
“For now let’s allow the national coronavirus command council to deliberate on these matters and also lead us,” he said.
On Monday evening, health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize said that Covid-19 cases in South Africa climbed to 4,793 infections. Mkhize also reported that the number of deaths from the coronavirus now stands at 90, up from the 87 deaths reported on Sunday.
The Department of Basic Education took to social media to gauge the most pressing concerns from both parents and teachers.
With the media briefing postponed, here is a question for when it eventually takes place: pic.twitter.com/A2npQ8MjOP
— Dep. Basic Education (@DBE_SA) April 27, 2020
The question elicited thousands of responses. Some parents said they would rather forfeit the school year, than send their children back to school under the current circumstances.
Other questions were around the measures to protect learners from infection, the provision of safe public transport, social distancing, class sizes, and testing facilities.
“How is the minister going to ensure that learners and staff are not infecting each other with CoronaVirus?” asked Vincent on Twitter. “Schools have overcrowded classrooms and are understaffed. No proper water and sanitation in rural schools.”
How is the minister going to ensure that learners and staff are not infecting each other with CoronaVirus? Schools have overcrowded classrooms and are understaffed. No proper water and sanitation in rural schools #lockdown pic.twitter.com/9ydkD1ep2X
— Vincent (@Da_Vince2) April 27, 2020
Numerous respondents provided suggestions of their own as to how to move the curriculum forward, while many said that schools should not be opening at all at this early stage.
Schools should not be opening now full stop. Infections and deaths are rising. Exams can be written again but corpses can’t be revived.
— Natasha van Heerden (@natashavh76) April 27, 2020
The DoE however, distanced itself from a message circulating on WhatsApp – calling for input relating to the opening of schools.
The DBE wishes to distance itself from this message. There is no truth in this message currently circulating on WhatsApp groups. The Day 32 question never mentioned what’s contained in this WhatsApp message. Please ignore it. We apologize for the inconvenience caused as a result. pic.twitter.com/aau1dvCe1W
— Dep. Basic Education (@DBE_SA) April 28, 2020
No sharing textbooks
The South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU) has stressed a safety-first approach.
“The first priority is the safety of all our learning institutions because we cannot afford to lose lives. Corpses can neither be taught nor teach.
“SADTU is concerned about the safety of teachers, lecturers, education support personnel and learners and students. Above all, we are concerned about the readiness of the provincial departments with regard to the availability of health and safety essentials that have to be put in place in the learning institutions at least two weeks before any activity can take place,” it said.
The union said that it expects a number of safety measures to be put in place once teachers and students return to school.
Among other measures, it wants the government to put the following in place:
- Provide temperature scanners for the daily screening of students and teachers;
- Ensure that learning institutions have enough soap, disinfectants and sanitisers and that hygiene is part of the curriculum where it should be the first thing to be practised before any daily learning activity can take place;
- Hire more staff to clean and sanitise the classrooms and workshops and offices as frequently as possible;
- Provide desk screens to avoid learners touching each other or the desks or chairs;
- Provide masks and make them mandatory;
- Prohibit the sharing of textbooks.
With no firm date set on when school are set to return, government has had to look at other options to save the school year.
One of these measures is the broadcasting of school lessons on the SABC. Programmes started on Thursday (9 April) and are broadcast across three SABC TV channels and 13 radio stations, with online support.
“The series will provide curriculum support lessons to learners in Grades 10, 11 and 12 and Early Childhood Development (ECD),” the Department of Basic Education said.
“Some of the subjects covered include Maths, Physical Sciences, English First Additional Language, Life Sciences and Accounting. A variety of African languages are also covered under the early childhood development basket,” it said.
Curro Holdings, the country’s largest independent education provider, also announced that its schools are equipped for learning to continue via a virtual and remote learning strategy.
The education group’s teachers, staff members and learners have access to a set of digital tools and solutions to facilitate remote learning while schools remain closed.
Microsoft Office 365 for Education and other tools have been made available for teachers to connect and engage with groups of learners in real-time to facilitate online lessons. Content is also accessible in the form of recordings.
The software also enables teachers to share videos, resources and tasks to aid in learners completing work in their own time – independently or in groups through the use of collaboration tools.
A number of the country’s universities have also begun online teaching – providing students with free data to ensure that they can continue with their work.
However, universities have warned that this is not a substitute for physical learning, and there are a number of courses which cannot be completed online.
Plan to save the school year
The Sunday Times recently reported that the Department of Basic Education is considering a number of options to help salvage South Africa’s school year.
Some of the possibilities being considered include:
- Earlier starts to the school day;
- Evening and weekend classes;
- Scrapping “nonessential” parts of the curriculum in certain subjects;
- Scrapping the June and September school holidays.
“The entire school calendar has now shifted, so anything is possible,” said departmental spokesperson, Elijah Mhlanga.
“The breaks could be shortened. Teachers could teach until the afternoon and maybe learners could go home and come back and lessons could go on into the evening.”