Gauteng Education set to reduce distancing in schools

Provincial education department to relax 1m rule so 40 kids can fit into classrooms

25 July 2021 - 00:03 By prega govender
Pupils will return to school tomorrow and follow their existing timetable - but all primary school pupils are expected to attend school daily from next Monday, August 2.
Pupils will return to school tomorrow and follow their existing timetable - but all primary school pupils are expected to attend school daily from next Monday, August 2.
Image: Esa Alexander

In a bid to accommodate up to 40 pupils in a classroom in primary schools, the Gauteng education department has told principals not to "strictly enforce" the 1m social distancing requirement.

Gauteng principals were informed of this change during a virtual meeting on school readiness with senior officials of the provincial education department on Thursday.

It comes ahead of the August 2 deadline for all primary schools to end rotational schooling, in which children attend classes on alternate days.

The process, first implemented last year in a bid to enable social distancing in classrooms, has caused most pupils to miss more than 50% of learning.

According to a slide presentation during the meeting, the national standard operating procedures "do not prescribe one-metre spacing but promote the principle of striving for a one-metre distance where possible".

"The number of learners per classroom will have to maintain a safe social distance practice in line with the standard operating procedures."

The move flies in the face of the national standard operating procedures for the management of Covid-19 in schools, which state that school management teams and governing bodies must ensure that the requirements of social distancing are met.

Pupils will return to school tomorrow and follow their existing timetable - but all primary school pupils are expected to attend school daily from next Monday, August 2.

The majority of no-fee-paying schools nationally have been following a rotational timetable since last year because they were forced to adhere to the physical distancing protocol.

During another consultation meeting with education stakeholders, including teacher unions on Wednesday, the Gauteng education officials stated that if the 1m spacing guide was followed, "about 507 township schools will be affected and remain on rotational basis".

During a consultation meeting on KwaZulu-Natal's state of readiness for the reopening of schools, the issue of 1m social distancing in classrooms was also raised.

According to a document from the province's education department titled "Decision matrix: stakeholder consultation", the Government Gazette was not clear on this issue and "it sends conflicting messages which may create challenges in schools".

"The other issue is that the so-called Delta variant can attack even small children, which poses a threat to the learners."

According to the document, the acting head of the KwaZulu-Natal education department "must continue to request the [national] department of basic education to send a clear position about social distancing to all provinces for schools to implement".

But basic education minister Angie Motshekga reiterated during a media briefing yesterday that they had to stick to the health protocols when it came to social distancing.

"Some provinces have already experimented around, even changing seating arrangements - remove desks, get chairs, so if people have chairs and they write on the laps you give them lap-desks."

Said Motshekga: "It's better than getting them to be playing in the streets. Some provinces are looking at rotation, not in terms of days but in terms of hours. Learners come earlier, say 7.30am, and they leave at 12pm so that they really rotate and get daily tuition."

She said that rotational attendance of pupils will have to continue "but we wish to really curtail rotation in primary schools so that we can consolidate and give them the necessary foundation. The damage happens in the primary school and if we can't save that part, we have big problem."

Motshekga said that depending on the confirmation by President Cyril Ramaphosa today, there is agreement across the sector that departments are ready to reopen schools tomorrow.

Simone Geyer, deputy director-general in the provincial delivery and oversight unit, told the briefing that the areas that remained a challenge in some provinces included proper sanitation as well as the supply of adequate furniture and mobile classrooms.

"Six provinces have plans at different procurement stages to make a dent on this long-standing backlog to provide furniture."

Lip service is being paid to the commitment to health and safety measures. This particular variant has shown that a lot of children are affected by Covid
Naptosa's Basil Manuel

She said that because of financial constraints, Mpumalanga and Gauteng were not able to buy additional furniture.

"These provinces are using other creative ways to address the problem, including fixing broken desks, chairs and tables."

Geyer said the provinces also had a backlog in trying to address overcrowding in schools and that the procurement of mobile classrooms was at an advanced stage or classrooms were already being delivered in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Northern Cape, North West and Western Cape.

Thomas Hlongwane, president of the South African Principals' Association in Gauteng, who attended Thursday's meeting, said the department indicated that the department of health had said that social distancing "wasn't necessarily a statutory requirement".

"We asked them to issue a circular in this regard."

Basil Manuel, executive director of the National Professional Teachers' Organisation of SA, said while it supported the return of all primary pupils, "this can't be a blank cheque".

"Lip service is being paid to the commitment to health and safety measures. This particular variant has shown that a lot of children are affected by Covid."

Stellenbosch University researcher Nic Spaull has, however, warned that if children can return only when full social distancing is applied, "we won't get back to school for five years".


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