OPEN LETTER TO CYRIL RAMAPHOSA | John Steenhuisen: Open schools fully. We are damaging our kids

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The writer has called for schools to be opened on a full-time basis.
The writer has called for schools to be opened on a full-time basis.
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Rotational schooling causes mental distress, increased exposure to violence and abuse, and increased malnutrition from missed school meals. All of which have long-term consequences for the health and well-being of this and future generations, writes John Steenhuisen in an open letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Dear President Ramaphosa,

Every day that we delay the opening of all schools fully, without rotational classes, we are doing irreparable damage to a generation of children already subjected to one of the worst education outcomes in the world. I hereby call on you to immediately allow all schools to open fully, regardless of whether the Disaster Management Act remains in place. If some or all Covid protocols at schools need to be dropped or relaxed to enable this, so be it. Every child needs to be in class every weekday.

The pandemic has become endemic in South Africa. For the sake of our children, your government needs to adjust swiftly to this new reality. There is no justification for continuing with rotational schooling. The purpose of that policy was to enable social distancing in classrooms, thereby taking pressure off the health system by slowing the spread of the virus. Yet, the health system has not been under pressure from the virus during the fourth wave.

Unlike many other countries, there is a very high level of natural immunity from prior infection in the South African population. Therefore, Covid hospitalisations have been much lower than in previous waves. And even so, 50% of them have been incidental, meaning people were admitted for non-Covid reasons and then happened to test positive, so they did not require ventilation or Covid ICU bed space. The reason for the rotational schooling policy no longer exists, and therefore it is irrational.

Teachers have had plenty of time to get vaccinated if they so choose. Schoolchildren cannot be made sacrificial lambs to cover for the government’s inadequate vaccination campaign or for adults’ failure to get vaccinated. As Wits Professor of Vaccinology Shabir Mahdi tweeted: 

"Immediate full opening of schools in SA can no longer be delayed to protect selfish interests of adults who choose to remain unvaccinated or inefficiency to rollout boosters to high-risk groups. Children who remain at nominal risk of severe disease have suffered disproportionately."

Rotational schooling is deepening inequality, as it disproportionately impacts poor children who can least afford to miss school and the myriad benefits that school attendance brings. There is evidence of schoolchildren losing 60-80% of their reading ability due to rotational schooling.

Most schoolchildren lost 50% of their schooling in 2020 and 2021. Hundreds of thousands have dropped out of school altogether due to the indirect effects of Covid regulations. In 2021 alone, some 370 000 to 700 000 learners dropped out of school, adding to the already burgeoning ranks of youth not in education, employment or skills training.

UNICEF South Africa representative Christine Muhigana says

"The reality is that South Africa cannot afford to lose another learner or another hour of learning time. It is urgent that we get every child back into the classroom, safely, now."

Rotational schooling is also causing mental distress, increased exposure to violence and abuse, and increased malnutrition from missed school meals. All of which have long-term consequences for the health and well-being of this and future generations.

Without a rational justification, denying schoolchildren their constitutional right to education is a gross miscarriage of justice. If the government does not enable a full reopening of schools by the end of this week, the DA will apply directly to the Constitutional Court, on the basis that children’s fundamental right to education, as per Section 29 (1) (a) of the Bill of Rights, is being denied.

Our duty to protect the interests of our children and safeguard their future is arguably the most important task we have as a society. I hope you share this view, Mr President, and that you will do what is right by them.

Yours sincerely,

John Steenhuisen

Leader, Democratic Alliance

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