As the new academic year shifts forward, overcrowding at schools across the province remains one of the biggest challenges facing the Western Cape Education Department (WCED).More than 1 million learners returned to school with around 107 000 of these starting Grade 1. This is an increase from 104 336 learners in 2019.Starting high school, a projected 93 000 learners are joining Grade 8, a significant increase from 85 771 Grade 8s in 2019. Included in the total is also 69 400 Grade R learners.Debbie Schäfer, provincial education minister, says scores of learners are yet to be placed at schools. She was addressing the media on the first day of school (Wednesday 15 January) at St Mary’s Primary School, in the CBD.However, she was quick to point out that officials from her department are working hard to place all the learners.“We are doing absolutely everything we can to still place learners who haven’t been placed, but our class sizes are increasing because we are not able to afford to pay for extra teachers that we desperately need,” says Schäfer. She attributed the challenges to “predominantly budget or lack thereof”.Her sentiments were shared by school principal Fiona Sellar. She said there had been a steady increase in the number of learners per grade at St Mary’s.She said for the current academic year the school has a total of 302 learners, up from about 270 in 2019.“We had a good influx of learners. Our classes are now at 40 to one, whereas some of them use to be 35 to one,” said Sellar. “Even our Grade R class is bigger this year than normal.”As for the learners, it was a day filled with mixed emotions. While others celebrated the first day of school, it was a day to forget for some. They struggled to adjust to their new surroundings. Lavuya Rayi (5), a Grade R learner from Nyanga, found the new environment unbearable. “Mommy, mommy, mommy,” he cried frantically, and continued crying long after his parents had left.But for some of his peers, it was a day to remember as they continued with classes without fear. Parent Thandazile Wopula from Mitchell’s Plain said she decided to enrol her two kids, one in Grade R and another in Grade 2, at the school after receiving a “good recommendation”.“We are just very happy with the school,” said Wopula. “We also wanted our kids to be together. It is now going to be very easy for me because I also work here in town.