School closures: SA must redesign its education system to make up for lost time, say experts

Fumigation of a school in preparation for opening under Level 3 lockdown.
Fumigation of a school in preparation for opening under Level 3 lockdown.
Photo: GCIS
  • The pressure for schools to close during the Covid-19 peak is growing, with teachers, parents and experts giving their views on whether they should.
  • Meanwhile, the Department of Basic Education says it is engaging with stakeholders and will announce any further developments. 
  • According to Wits' head of education, Professor Felix Maringe, safety should be prioritised and lost time made up for afterwards. 

As the pressure mounts for schools to close in South Africa during the peak of Covid-19 infections, education experts have weighed in on the debate, some saying it is complex, while others believed time lost could be made up for. 

News24 spoke to three education experts on Wednesday; professor of higher education and head of the School of Education at Wits University Felix Maringe, former education MEC Professor Mary Metcalfe and head of education at Section27 Faranaaz Veriava. 

According to Maringe, safety should come first at this point, while the country should also start thinking of ways it could "redesign" its education system to make up for the lost time caused by the pandemic. 

Maringe said the notion the entire academic year was "lost" was not a good reflection and mapping plans on what needs to happen in the coming years to catch up were most important. "There is unfortunately a narrative of losing and gaining, and I think that is not very helpful at all. What is important is first and foremost the health and safety of everybody involved in education.

"If we don't have the mechanisms and the resources to ensure we will be healthy and safer then, I am always inclined to us closing shop when it comes to schools at this present moment," he told News24.

Making reference to how the country had made up for all the years that were lost in terms of "potential educational input" during the years of liberation struggles, Maringe said the country managed to catch up for those "lost" years and still could do the same with reference to Covid-19 lost time.  

Professor Felix Maringe said: 

There is no doubt in mind that all of us collectively can really think about ways we can redesign our education system so as to make up for any time we may have lost during this particular time and still be able to move on.

He added there seemed, to some extent, to be people undermining the potential of others thinking of possible solutions beyond Covid-19, saying the cause was probably because of "disloyalty and undermining the intelligence and collective wisdom of our people in the country". 

Maringe said the panic and fear from parents, guardians and society as a whole regarding schools was to be understood. He added parents themselves also seemed to be caught in between decisions about livelihoods and their returning to work.

"So that if parents can be released to work, it means that kids should be going back to school. So, it is an entanglement and I think what we have to do is just stop, listen to ourselves, listen to each other and say we can always make up for this lost time," he added.

Regulatory framework

Meanwhile, Section27's Veriava said although the question of closing or staying opened was difficult to give straight answers to, she believed although there seemed to be protocols in place to mitigate the chances of infections at schools, she was not sure whether the measures were sufficient during the peak period. 

She added she also believed each province and hotspot needed to make its own decision at a particular time on whether or not schools should be closed. 

"So in the long term and for as long as we do have this virus with us, I think it is important to have that regulatory framework in place. But as we are nearing our peak, I think there needs to be a government strategy around managing the peak and around that, I don't know if protocols are, in itself, sufficient. 

"Science says learners are less likely to get infected but if the numbers get higher, the risk also gets higher. And the risk is not only for the learners, but also for the entire school community; teachers, workers at the school," Veriava said. 

READ | 'Schools remain open until further notice', says education dept as sector meetings announced

She added decisions during this period needed to be localised, by, for example, schools, communities, and premiers of provinces. 

Veriava said while there were some issues still being faced by schools since the reopening on 8 June, she did not think the department was able to do "enough" to get all health and safety protocols in place, but also did not believe it was responsible for the surge in infections. 

"The surge is as a result of opening up and we know we had to open to balance out issues around the economy. What I do think is that we need to make sure there is access to health services, consider whether there should be a lockdown as we get into a surge or as we are now in the eye of the storm and in the long term that protocols for schools are up and running and implemented," she added.

Community transmission

Metcalfe said the question of opening and keeping them opened will, for the foreseeable future, be a function of both the readiness of schools and the rate of community transmissions. 

She added the World Health Organisation had been clear the best way of opening schools was part of a broad-based comprehensive strategy of low community transmissions. 

Metcalfe said when unions and the minister met there should be an expectancy of an application of the department's own criteria around schools in hotspots and a focus on community transmissions.

"What this means is that hopefully we will see some schools that are opened and some that are closed and that is only defensible if we have what we might call low stakes assessment or no prejudice to learners for whom schools are not opened for extended periods.

"The low stakes assessment or no prejudice to learners is very clearly catered for in the Department of Education's policy guidelines.

"And what it means is that learners will not be forced to cover the curriculum quickly in shorter periods of time in order to pass or fail but that the curriculum recovery process will be a multi-year, both 2020, 2021 and maybe 2022. So, we must stop thinking about the school year in terms of learners passing and failing on a set curriculum," said Metcalfe.

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