Confusion over back-to-school dates — education DG says one thing, deputy minister gives different date

29 April 2020 - 14:17 By Andisiwe Makinana
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South Africa's post-lockdown back-to-school date is yet to be finalised.
South Africa's post-lockdown back-to-school date is yet to be finalised.
Image: 123RF/olegdudko

The department of basic education appeared to backtrack on Wednesday from the announcement that schools would partially reopen for certain pupils next week.

“We can't say we are presenting a cast-in-stone plan. Yesterday, after presenting to the social cluster, they indicated that the date of May 6 is not realistic and we need to change it.

“In the presentation that I have now, that date is changed,” said basic education deputy minister Makgabo Reginah Mhaule on Wednesday.

This came just more than an hour after the department's director-general Mathanzima Mweli told MPs that schools would partially reopen on May 6 for grade 12 and grade 7 pupils.

It was also after MPs raised concerns about the plan to reopen schools next week, questioning the readiness of the department, with one going as far as saying the department was risking lives to save the school year.

Mhaule said school principals and chairpersons of school governing bodies would reopen next week to look at all the things that would be needed when teachers return later.

Explaining basic education minister Angie Motshekga's absence from the virtual meeting, Mhaule said Motshekga was attending a cabinet meeting to present the department's plan to her cabinet colleagues.

“When this plan is approved, then we are going to school; on the 18th our children are going to school,” she said without elaborating on the new date.

As part of managing the risk, the department said it would start will grades 12 and 7, as these are the two "exit" grades, from high school and from primary school.

Also, these pupils are generally the oldest in their schools, and could help with sanitising infrastructure and with the orientation of younger learners when they return to schools.

Other grades would go back gradually over the following weeks, with grade R the last group to go back in mid-July.

Mweli said exams that were supposed to be written in May and June will be moved to November and the time previously set aside for them will instead be used for teaching.

The winter school holidays, which are normally three to four weeks long, will be shortened to a week and the spring holiday to one day linked to a weekend which will be a long weekend.

The final grade 12 exams will be finished around the second week of December, according to the provisional plan tabled to parliament. With the marking of scripts taking about two to three weeks, results would be  released in the second half of January 2021.

Mweli said the department would rework the curriculum for internal grades except for grade 12, whose exam papers have already been set. With other grades, schools will have to cover “strategic” topics.

He said the curriculum will be reorganised to secure the fundamentals, annual teaching plans will be amended and foundation skills will be secured. The content in terms of life orientation and life skills will also be rearranged to focus on Covid-19 awareness and personal hygiene, every subject should contain at least five minutes of awareness about Covid-19 to enhance behaviour change among young people.

Mweli said the curriculum recoveries had been implemented and worked before in places like Vuwani and Merafong which had experienced disruptions in previous years.

International examples

The department said it had looked at international examples of Taiwan, China, Denmark and Singapore regarding restarting schools.

“These countries have gone through what we are currently going through. In terms of international experience, very little is known when it comes to schools and Covid-19,” said Mweli

Taiwan closed schools for only two weeks. China did so from January 20 to February 6. Denmark opened early childhood centres and primary schools and placed no face mask requirement. Singapore, on the other hand, did not close schools. When they experienced a spike in new infections recently, some schools were closed.

MPs were not convinced, however. They raised concerns about schools' readiness to reopen “so soon”, questioning the possibility of social distancing in overcrowded classrooms and whether it would be possible to monitor compliance at schools and in the transport to and from school.

We agree time is of the essence but if I were to choose between time and life, I would choose life.
Siphosethu Ngcobo

“How are you going to address the issue of ablution facilities in schools and water provision? Practically speaking, will that be implemented in our deep rural schools?” asked the ANC's Patamedi Ronald Moroatshehla.

He also raised concerns about overcrowding and how the department would address that.

The DA's Nomsa Marchesi said it would be impossible to observe the 1.2-metre social distancing prescribed in lockdown regulations in classrooms. She also wanted to know whether there was a plan for parents who have paid school fees and now have to buy data for online learning.

“The May 6 date is too soon and is too short a notice. How ready are schools? I don't think we are really ready to send children to school,” said the DA's Mbulelo Bara.

The Inkatha Freedom Party's Siphosethu Ngcobo was more scathing, saying: “The DG was trying by all means to convince us that this is the right time to reopen. We agree time is of the essence, but if I were to choose between time and life, I would choose life.”

He said he doubted the department had the capacity it claimed to have.

“We are exposing the country to a serious risk. We have to prepare for that risk because immediately when kids go to school, these nice stories will not happen. It's doubtful that we are doing the right thing,” said Ngcobo.

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