The Zero Dropout Campaign has called on education officials to ensure that school recovery plans are implemented safely and consistently, particularly in lower quintile schools that do not have access to running water and sanitation.
"We support the decision to complete the 2020 academic year, provided all reasonable measures are taken to protect learners, support staff, teachers and their families," said Merle Mansfield, programme director of the Zero Dropout Campaign.
"The Department of Basic Education's appointment of independent monitors will hopefully make it easier for principals to communicate with district and provincial officials should they experience delays in the delivery of personal protective equipment (PPE), water tanks, and essential resources," said Mansfield.
The reality is that school closures carry high social and economic costs, particularly in disadvantaged communities, and increases the risk of pupils dropping out.
"Therefore, the public debate should not be about whether schools should reopen. Instead, we should be talking about how civil society, educators, parents and government can collaborate to ensure classes resume as safely as possible over a sustained period," Mansfield explained.
Domestic and international experiences have shown that the longer a child is out of school, the less likely they are to return, increasing the risk of teenage pregnancy, exposure to violence and other social ills.
"While at home, marginalised children are also not able to access school enrichment programmes, meals and psychosocial support such as counselling and mentoring, which the Covid-19 outbreak has made all the more pertinent," she said.
Since children are expected to return to school in phases, it's crucial that those who remain at home are able to maintain some connection with school life.
Unfortunately, distance learning posed a dilemma from the onset because many vulnerable children don't have access to digital tools, data, a television or radio.
Figures show that only 22% of households have a computer, and while cellphone penetration is high, only 60% have access to the internet via their mobile phones.
"We urge the department to find ways to bolster learner support programmes for all grades by listening to the experience of teachers during the lockdown, establishing a task team inclusive of civil society to find solutions to the challenges, and by ensuring all educational content is zero-rated."
Re-engineering the system
The Zero Dropout Campaign agreed with the department that the school system must be re-engineered in the long term.
"By factoring the issue of dropout into policy and planning frameworks, educators will be in a stronger position to address the root causes of poor learning outcomes," Mansfield added.
She said currently South Africa had heterogeneous classrooms comprising children with different learning needs; some have progressed without an opportunity to remediate their knowledge gaps while others experience learning barriers due to psychosocial concerns.
"If we collect and track learner-level data correctly, we may be able to identify at-risk learners in need of extra support before they drop out of the system," she said.
"This requires a data-driven approach to tackling dropout and the development of robust referral systems for psychosocial and academic support."