Mmusi Maimane | Decision to reopen schools needs to be reconsidered

Teachers from Mount Pleasant Primary in Hermanus call for schools to close as Covid-19 reaches its peak in the Western Cape. Photo: Noluvu Ludidi
Teachers from Mount Pleasant Primary in Hermanus call for schools to close as Covid-19 reaches its peak in the Western Cape. Photo: Noluvu Ludidi

The real possibility exists that pupils will not complete the 2020 curriculum by the end of the year, writes Mmusi Maimane. 

On Tuesday, Education Cabinet Secretary, George Magoha, announced the Kenyan government's decision to close all schools across the country until the beginning of 2021.

In a media release, Magoha stated that "[i]n consultation with the Ministry of Health we have agreed schools to reopen when daily Covid-19 cases reduce consistently for 14 days. Social and physical distancing is the most critical factor in ensuring safety of learners".

With this decision, Kenya becomes the 110th country in the world to implement country-wide school closures in an effort to halt the spread of Covid-19.

According to Unesco's global data, 61% of enrolled learners - or 1 067 590 512 - continue to be affected by school closures across the world. Indeed, the challenge Covid-19 poses to education is not uniquely South African. However, the poor conditions faced by children attending many poor and rural schools in South Africa makes our situation all the more trying.

Earlier this year, Amnesty International compiled a 120-page report entitled "Broken and Unequal: The State of Education in South Africa". It neatly describes how the poor state of basic education in South Africa - and the underperformance of government in addressing this - widens the inequality gap in society and undermines the future of millions of young people. The report's opening paragraph reads as follows:

"South Africa is failing too many of its young people when it comes to education. Although it has made significant progress since the end of apartheid in widening access [to education] this has not always translated into a quality education for all pupils. The system continues to be dogged by stark inequalities and chronic underperformance that have deep roots in the legacy of apartheid, but which are also not being effectively tackled by the current government. The result is many schools with crumbling infrastructure, overcrowded classrooms and poor educational outcomes."

It is within the South African context that we must consider Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga's decision to reopen schools. We cannot ignore the fact that we do not have a resilient and sustainable education system that provides equality of opportunity for all. Rather, we have two education systems - one for the rich and another for the rest.

In addition to children being carriers of the virus, there is the issue of teachers and support staff in the education system.

The teaching community has many teachers with high levels of pre-existing conditions, or co-morbidities, these reflect by and large the demographics of South Africa.

Moreover, of the 440 000 teachers across the country, the average age of a teacher is 43, with 34% percent of our teachers are over the age of 50. They need to be protected as well.

That is why I am unapologetic in my call for schools to remain closed until the infection peak has passed. This time must be used by the Department of Basic Education to collaborate with other ministries and work on the identified areas to adequately prepare schools for reopening.  Our proposal for the "Roadmap to Reopening" is as follows:

Our proposal for the “Roadmap to Reopening” is as follows:

1.     Mandatory Covid-19 testing for each teacher, staff member and learner.

2.     Adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and walk-in sanitisers in every school.

3.     Disinfection of classroom during break times.

4.     Implementing a rotational "shift" plan for classes and break times.

5.     Each school to have a dedicated "sick bay" for unwell learners.

6.     Educational and awareness literature on Covid-19 to be displayed in all schools.

7.     Eradicating latest NEIMS (National Education Infrastructure Management System) infrastructure backlog,          including water, electricity, sanitation, school buildings libraries, laboratories and sports facilities.

8.     Reprioritising and ring-fencing of DBE budget for digital learning and infrastructure.

9.     Conducting a Nationwide Teacher Skills Audit

10.  Implementation of mandatory leadership & mentorship programmes for all school principals.

In addition to this, the Basic Education Department must focus on bridging this digital divide with interventions that seek to improve the quality and extent of access to technology, and skills and literacy in relation to technology.

According to the Basic Education Department’s latest NEIMS report from August 2019, only 20.2% of schools in South Africa had internet connectivity for teaching and learning. This is why we propose reprioritising and ring-fencing a sizeable chunk of its budget for digital learning and infrastructure and broadband roll out in schools.

We must accept the real possibility of our learners not completing the 2020 curriculum by the end of the year. Therefore, curricula must be revised to merge 2020 and 2021 material.

This will affect students in different ways and to address this we propose a number of solutions. Firstly, accept students to higher education institutions on the basis of Grade 11 results and a university administered programme specific entry test.

Secondly, put all students entering the higher education system in 2021 on extended programmes. This would mean that all students entering university next year would have one year added to their degrees, this year can be used to teach relevant material and to close the gaps in knowledge as a result of our sub-standard basic education system.

Thirdly, all students enrolled in 2020 programmes will continue learning based on hybrid curriculums of 2020 and 2021 work.

And finally, all other students in grades 11 and below will continue the academic programme based on where they left off before the schools were put into lockdown.

In respect to final year university students, we propose that all final year job applicants be accepted on their penultimate year results - with a provision that they complete their final year online, via correspondence or part-time with their alma mater within a two-year period.

Moreover, all employment contracts entered into for the 2021 work year must be upheld as if the students had completed the degree.

Schools cannot simply return to the way they were, with the simple addition of being Covid-19 safe. We have entered a "new normal" and this requires the Department of Basic Education to respond by fixing our broken and unequal education system.

- Mmusi Maimane is the Chief Activist of the One South Africa Movement.

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