OPINION | A (new) lockdown tale of two school systems: Segregation in the right to basic education

Empty school desks.
Empty school desks.
Duncan Alfreds, News24

Public schools should not be the only ones who are forced to close their doors, while private schools have a choice, writes Nicole Breen. 

Once there were two systems of education in South Africa.

One for the "haves" and one for the "have nots". These were carefully designed by a regime serving to benefit only a small part of the population. The people rose up and this tale purportedly came to an end with the ushering in of our new democratic era - where everyone has the rights to both equality and basic education and where the best interests of the child are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child.

We fast-forward to 2020 where the country, along with the rest of the world, has entered into a new struggle fighting Covid-19. The virus knows no creed or colour and all of us are equally susceptible to its clutches.

Despite this, our government’s response to the pandemic has led to a generation of children again experiencing a "tale of two school systems".

This time, however, the right to basic education of those who can afford an independent or private education receives more protection than those who rely on the public education system. While this response may not have emanated from the same paradigm as apartheid, it has the same effect - with the prejudiced being largely black children.    

The creation of this inequality is borne out of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement on 23 July that public schools will be closed for a period of four weeks and that the 2020 school year will be extended.

The announcement made no mention of independent (private) schools, meaning that they can remain open and promote learners to a higher grade at the end of the year.

Coincidently this four-week break of public schools falls within the same time of the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa (ISASA) recommended school holiday for independent schools that follow a three-term model. Many private or independent schools, however, do not follow this model and follow a calendar similar to that of the Department of Basic Education, or even a different model that they have adopted themselves. Given that not all independent school-going learners would ordinarily be at home during this period, this action by government should not be construed that independent schools were not included in the announcement due to this coincidence of a time overlap, as it is not the case.

Impact on future opportunities

There are thus children in public schools with no clear indication of how they will remain on par with their peers in private schools and how this segregated approach will impact on their opportunities for progression and future enrolment into higher education programmes.

When commenting on the president’s announcement Minister for Basic Education Angie Motshekga remarked that she welcomed the decision, but also then made the point that "it is important to bear in mind that the latest opinions of the Ministerial Advisory Committee, medical and science experts is that learners are better at school than in communities and homes where the infections are actually taking place"." In making these utterances, the minister crystallised an important point: public schools were not closed in the best interests of children.

Further to this, Dr Sheri Fanaroff - writing for our government’s Covid-19 online resource and news portal - has indicated previously that children are not likely to become infected with the virus or to act as a vector for infection. It logically follows that educators and staff will not be at a heightened risk because of the children. Why then, are public schools closed?

The decision to close public schools was taken in consultation with a spectrum of stakeholders, including unions, some of which had long since been campaigning that schools should be closed because of the health risks of Covid-19.

Given that the decision clearly did not have children in mind, one wonders if it was merely a means through which to placate these groups. Indeed, Professor Jonathan Jansen, Vice Chancellor of the University of Stellenbosch, points out that "a massive political standoff would have closed schools anyway. This way government seems to be in control".  

This is a dangerous possibility and not something that should be taken lightly, but is it acceptable for our government to capitulate to the demands of unions and alliances at the expense of our nation’s children?

It doesn’t seem like this can be the case in a democratic society. Also, public servants working under the auspices of other government departments continue to work, while teachers in public schools - by definition also public servants - get seemingly special treatment. Is it fair?

Jansen points out that private schools - particularly the more affluent institutions - may be in a better position to implement social distancing and hygiene protocols. This is an interesting suggestion, but does not account for some private and independent schools that are poorer and also crowded.

It also doesn’t account for the former Model-C government schools with comparable ability to ensure learners are kept safe.

Ultimately it seems that a blanket approach was taken because it was easier. Perhaps something more sensible to consider would be to look at schools (public or private and independent) on a case by case basis where there is clear evidence and good reasons to temporarily close them.

There are risks associated with school closure and the extension of the school year.

This is not just about these four weeks - it is compounded by time already lost and time to be lost in the future if schools close again.

UNESCO has expressed concern that "Covid-19 school closures around the world will hit girls hardest". It indicates a likely increase in "[…] drop-out rates which will disproportionately affect adolescent girls, further entrench gender gaps in education, and lead to increased risk of sexual exploitation, early pregnancy and early and forced marriage".

In addition to this, there is the risk of a child suffering psychosocial distress, such as anxiety and depression, as a consequence of being out of the school environment. Children also lose valuable peer-to-peer support and the support of educators who often play roles far beyond the scope of the classroom. These are risks to which children from public schools are currently exposed, but that children from private and independent schools remain safe from.

Politically motivated 

The Democratic Alliance is launching a court application challenging the closure of public schools. The DA appears to have considered evidence similar to that postulated above and have taken a firm position in this regard. Leader John Steenhuisen maintained that neither learners nor educators are at a heightened risk of contracting Covid-19 at schools. He indicated that this move was not in the best interests of children but rather was politically motivated.

A case like this is important because it could serve as an equiliser, placing private and public schools on the same plain. It should either be reasonable or unreasonable to open or close a school - any school. A judgment setting out whether closure is reasonable - even if it does not focus on the public-private divide will serve to establish this.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the existence of independent schools. It is after all a part of freedom is to have choices available to a person wherever possible. But one should not be free while another is bound.

One has to ask how politicians, unionists and teachers might explain this new tale of two school systems to Hector Pieterson and many other children who challenged similar injustices in 1974.

- Nicole Breen writes about human rights and current affairs matters. 

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