Covid-19: Call for return of all primary school children

18 April 2021 - 00:00
By prega govender AND Prega Govender
Most primary school pupils are attending lessons on alternate days because of social-distancing requirements. File photo.
Image: Iavan Pijoos Most primary school pupils are attending lessons on alternate days because of social-distancing requirements. File photo.

The department of basic education is considering allowing all primary school pupils to return to class full-time because they are less likely to be hospitalised or die from Covid-19 complications.

Department spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga said director-general Mathanzima Mweli and provincial education heads will discuss the idea at a workshop tomorrow.

Mweli acknowledged in parliament last month that "the alternating attendance of school children is a challenge". Most primary school pupils at government schools are attending lessons on alternate days because social-distancing requirements make it hard to accommodate all pupils simultaneously, especially at institutions with large classes.

The proposed move has been described as "long overdue" by Wits University vaccinology professor Shabir Madhi, and school governing body associations said they would welcome it.

Madhi said all primary and high school pupils should be attending lessons daily. They can, he said, get infected whether they are at home or school.

"But the important thing is that they would rarely be hospitalised, let alone die from Covid-19. The majority of infections in children, probably up to 80% of infections, are asymptomatic," he said.

In January, the department said 5,663 pupils had contracted the virus and 10 had died.

Paul Colditz, CEO of the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools, confirmed it had proposed to the department this week that all primary and high school pupils be allowed to return daily.

"Children can scrum and tackle each other in rugby on the sports field but in the classroom they may not come closer than one metre of each other. It doesn't make sense as the core business of a school is academics," he said.

"In large schools with relatively limited capacity, parents are putting pressure on principals and school governing bodies to take in all learners."

Anthea Cereseto, CEO of the Governing Body Foundation, said: "I don't believe attending school on alternate days is good for children because they need routine and consistency. Reading and maths need daily consistent reinforcement."

Matakanye Matakanya, general secretary of the National Association of School Governing Bodies, said that parents "are asking for schools to accept all children on a daily basis".

Nomusa Cembi, spokesperson for the South African Democratic Teachers' Union, said the department must ensure there are enough classrooms to allow social distancing. "We have to balance between ensuring that learners learn and children spreading the disease among teachers and their parents and elderly grandparents."

Basil Manuel, executive director of the National Professional Teachers' Organisation of SA, said a break in daily attendance "does not sustain consolidation" of things taught. "But ... we can't simply have a one-size-fits-all approach because there are some schools that are vastly overpopulated, where you can't even manage a half-metre distance between children."