More than half of South Africans want schools to stay closed: study

 ·13 Jan 2021

With schools due to reopen on 27 January, as cases of Covid-19 continue to rise, a growing number of South Africans have expressed support for the continued closure of schools.

This was one of the key findings in a survey undertaken by the University of Johannesburg and the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), which was conducted between 30 December 2020 and 6 January 2021.

The online survey was completed by 10,618 participants. Findings have been weighted to match Statistics South Africa data on race, education and age, and can be regarded as broadly representative of the population at large.

In July last year, in a similar context of rising infections, the government took the decision to postpone the re-opening of schools. It would be consistent for it to do so again, the researchers said.

“At that time, the president’s main argument was based on advice from the World Health Organisation (WHO) that infection among teachers and learners would spread to the community and vice versa, and that re-opening schools could lead to a further rise in cases.

“This assessment remains powerful, especially when there is evidence to suggest that the new 501Y.V2 variant of Covid-19 is more transmissible.”

Key findings

The key findings of the study show that:

  • 53% of adults think schools should remain closed until the situation improves;
  • 19% of adults believe that schools should re-open for grade 7 and grade 12 learners only;
  • 19% of adults think schools should re-open for all grades;
  • 9% of adults ‘don’t know’.

Attitudes towards the opening of schools were consistent by gender. 52% of men and 53% of women believe schools should not re-open until the situation improves again.

However, differences on whether schools should re-open differed by income, race and type of accommodation, the researchers said.

“Those on lower incomes were more likely to oppose re-opening schools than those on higher incomes. 53% of those earning less that R1,000 a month were against schools re-opening, compared to 41% of those who earned over R20,000 a month, a difference of 12 percentage points.”

Attitudes to the re-opening of schools also differed by race. Indian adults were the most strongly opposed to schools re-opening, with 77% saying that schools should not re-open until the situation improves.

Coloured and Black African adults were also opposed. 63% of Coloured adults and 52% of Black African do not believe schools should re-open. By contrast, only 37% of white adults were opposed to the re-opening of schools.

The public’s low level of support for children returning to school should be read alongside a key finding from Round 1 of the UJ/HSRC survey, which lasted from 13 April to 11 May 2020, that showed 79% of adults were ‘very concerned’ that the ‘coronavirus situation will have a negative impact on (their) child’s education’, the researchers said.

“The findings from the survey show that the majority of adults oppose the re-opening of schools while Covid-19 cases continue at their current high levels.

“This opposition is strongest amongst the most vulnerable and economically disadvantaged sections of society, who are less likely to have confidence in the ability of their schools to provide a safe environment for learners.

“These findings illustrate that although parents are deeply concerned about their children’s education that they are equally, if not more, concerned about the safety of their children, their families and communities,” said  Professor Carin Runciman, UJ Associate Professor at the Centre for Social Change.

Read: Opening of schools in South Africa under discussion, as worries grow about ‘repeating last year’s mistakes’

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