SA plans phased reopening of schools from next week

Department of basic education director-general Mathanzima Hubert Mweli. Picture: Lucky Nxumalo
Department of basic education director-general Mathanzima Hubert Mweli. Picture: Lucky Nxumalo

South Africa plans to begin reopening its schools next week, allowing students to return in a phased approach in a continuing effort to contain the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus.

Classes will reopen from May 6, with students from grades 7 and 12 being the first to return, basic education director-general Hubert Mweli told legislators on Wednesday.

Schools have been closed since late March, when government introduced a nationwide lockdown to slow the pace of Covid-19 infections.

Their reopening will include strict conditions, including a limit of no more than two students per desk, and that children must wear face masks during the school day, Mweli said. All classes are expected to have returned by July 15.

The deaths are low in children and it’s mostly a quite uneventful clinical course. These kids get a bit sick, have a runny nose and a bit of a cough, and then recover.
Epidemiologist Salim Abdool Karim

When and how schools should reopen has been a cause for concern for many teachers, pupils, parents and civil society groups, and Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga has not rushed into tabling proposals before Cabinet over the academic calendar.

Motshekga on Saturday said Grade 12 pupils should be ready to write their exams as her department was doing all it could to ensure that 2020 doesn’t go down the drain.

On Wednesday, Mweli told the portfolio committee on basic education and the select committee on education, technology, arts and culture about the plan for schools to reopen in phases, although this is subject to change.

Feedback from social cluster ministers was that May 18 could be more feasible.

Only Grade 7 and Grade 12 pupils are expected to go back to school on the first day.

Grade 11 and Grade 6 pupils are scheduled to follow two weeks later, and pupils in other grades will follow every two weeks until Grade R pupils’ anticipated return on July 15.

The plan wasn’t final and was expected to be presented to and approved by the national command council shortly after the virtual meeting with the two committees.

There are still many unknowns about Covid-19, but chief among them is why this disease has a seemingly milder clinical course in children than in adults.

Read: Many unknowns about Covid-19 as parents fret over reopening of schools

A major concern for parents will be the fear of their children contracting the disease once back at school.

“The data we have from China show that this disease is quite mild in children and that few children die [from it],” epidemiologist Salim Abdool Karim told City Press.

“The deaths are low in children and it’s mostly a quite uneventful clinical course. These kids get a bit sick, have a runny nose and a bit of a cough, and then recover.

“The course of the disease is much different in children as opposed to adults. We don’t know definitively yet in South Africa, but from the data we have we’re seeing a similar pattern to China,” he said.

In a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine this week, researchers from Wuhan – once the epicentre of the pandemic – evaluated children infected with Covid-19 who were treated at the Wuhan Children’s Hospital, which treats children under 16 years old.

They found that, in contrast with infected adults, most infected children appeared to have a milder clinical course.

A fever was present in only 41% of cases in children (of the 1 391 children assessed, 171 had Covid-19), while 27% did not have any symptoms of infection or features of pneumonia.

An earlier study published in The Journal of Pediatrics in March, which examined 2 000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in children reported to the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, showed that as with other reports, the majority (90%) of cases were mild or moderate.

Children mostly experienced symptoms such as fever, coughing, sore throat, runny nose, sneezing and sometimes pneumonia. – Bloomberg


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