How do we safely re-open our schools in a time of crisis?

If you are a parent, you are understandably concerned about the likely re-opening of schools during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Minister of Basic Education wavers on the topic, dates for possible reopening have already changed more than once, and of course there is generalised anxiety about sending children to school where their safety and health are no longer fully under the protection of their parents.

We must stress two things:

  1. Realistically, schools are likely to open in the next several weeks and the public needs to be aware of the complex issues arising out of that fact. As the economy gradually re-opens schools must follow. Parents going to work will need their children to be in school. And the education of children cannot wait.
  2. The health and safety of children, teachers and school staff must be paramount in all considerations of how and when the reopening of schools will take place.

Why re-open?

The single most important reason why schools should re-open is that the loss of teaching time in the life of a child could be catastrophic, and could set the child back years, rather than months, in their personal achievement, career and earning capacity. These effects are worse for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But there are other equally compelling reasons why schools must reopen, and all are set out below.

  1. Loss of teaching time is a problem
    The DA is concerned about the loss of teaching time resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, and believes that every effort must be made to save the teaching year.  Learners and their families, plus the state itself, stand to lose an enormous amount in time and money if this is not achieved and learners will not be able to progress to the next level (particularly in the case of those graduating from one level of school to another) resulting in the emptying of institutions at some levels and overcrowding at others (particularly Grade 1). If Matrics do not finish the year, Universities will not be able to admit a new cohort of first years – itself a serious matter.
  2. We must avoid widening the gap between disadvantaged and advantaged learners
    There is evidence that the long-term closure of schools disadvantages the poor more than it does the well-off and thus widens the gap between learners. This is something we seek to avoid at all costs.
  3. Hardship from lack of school feeding schemes
    The closing of schools has resulted in one particular kind of hardship – hunger amongst schoolchildren normally reliant on school feeding for their nutritional needs. We believe that until the lockdown is softened, it is vital that, as in the Western Cape, school feeding schemes are continued under carefully monitored hygienic and social distancing conditions. In the Western Cape both the police and city councils are assisting with ensuring that feeding takes place safely. This should happen elsewhere as well.  

How and when do schools reopen?

According to the College of Medicine of South Africa (CMSA) and others there is no evidence so far that the closure of schools significantly helps prevent the spread of the virus. Given this, and the fact that our economy is now opening up, the re-opening of schools would seem to be both possible and vital. Our proposals are as follows:

  1. Gradual, phased re-opening with strict health protocols in place
    We suggest that in due course there must be a gradual re-opening of schools, as guided, of course, by health concerns.
  2. Protocol needed for closure of individual schools
    Over and above the general rules, a protocol must be developed by the department and province concerned to determine when and why each individual school may open or close in difficult situations – say if a number of learners or teachers get ill, or where an infection “hotspot” is identified. In these cases, the Member of the Executive Council (MEC) and/or the premier of a particular province may choose to close schools in those areas. These protocols will prevent the ad hoc closure of schools.
  3. Finding an ideal date for gradual re-opening
    If the reopening is later than mid-June, this year probably cannot be saved for Matrics and Grade 7s. So we need to put a date on our ideal partial re-opening. Our suggested date is the first half of June. We think that Matrics and final-year students should return by this date if their year is to be saved. This date provides adequate catch-up time for Matrics in particular, if a rigorous curriculum catch-up strategy is in place, although it may mean that Matric exams are written a little later than usual.

    Very small private schools might need to open more quickly – as long as their learners are fully protected.

    If the year cannot be saved, which should become clear during May, a contingency plan should be put in place.

  4. How phasing should work
    If and when the re-opening occurs, it should take place in a PHASED manner. The first month would be for Matrics and Grade 7s, the second for Grades 11 and 6, and so on down the years. A faster re-opening will not allow for the school concerned to prepare properly for new influxes of learners.

What happens once the schools are open?

Once schools reopen both teachers and learners will need support and education in the protocols required to protect them from the virus.

  1. The need for careful daily screening
    All children should be screened daily. Parents and caregivers should be asked to assist here, but schools also have an obligation to perform screening, possibly using parents and other (screened and vetted) adults as volunteers to assist via questioning learners and measuring their temperatures. Western Cape schools are acquiring thermometers for all schools. We recommend that other provinces follow this example,. Every non-learner entering any school should also be screened on entry.

    A protocol must be developed to deal with the cases where learners arrive with symptoms that need further attention.

    If teachers or learners have an underlying condition which will place them at a high risk, this needs to be conveyed to the school, preferably via a formal procedure with medical certificates.

    Should parents not send their children to school out of concern for the spread of the virus or because of underlying conditions they will be responsible for ensuring that their children do the school work required from them

  2. Social distancing must be enforced
    Parents or caregivers must ensure that transport to school is undertaken with proper social distancing, in well ventilated and sanitised vehicles. Schools must enforce social distancing in teacher facilities, learner queuing, learner socialising and the like. Large school venues such as halls may be used for teaching where that enables better physical distancing, while all large school gatherings (assemblies, sports events etc.) should not be held. With fewer learners in institutions, there will be space to undertake social distancing in classrooms for the first week. As more and more learners enter schools over the months, the use of staggered school hours and/or alternating school days should be considered. Social distancing must be 1m between people as long as masks are also worn, with no crowded classrooms and no crowds before or after school.
  3. Masks
    Masks (or approved facial covering) and lessons in hygienic mask-wearing should be compulsory for all learners and teachers at all times – to be provided by parents/caregivers/teachers themselves. An emergency supply to be kept by schools.

  4. Hygiene
    Rigorous hygiene should be taught and enforced at all types of institutions. Adequate water supplies need to be ensured so that hand-washing can take place regularly and frequently.

    Measures should include:
    1. regular sanitisation and frequent cleaning of buildings/classrooms/ablution facilities and so on as well as the specific cleaning of items and places which are touched frequently (door knobs, light switches, tables, desks, phones, keyboards etc.),
    2. frequent handwashing – liquid soap (and, of course, water) should be made widely available,
    3. persons entering the premises should sanitise upon entry,
    4. entry itself should be strictly limited and controlled, and
    5. learners and teachers are to be taught various types of hygienic etiquette – with regards to sneezing, coughing, physical interaction, handwashing routines and so on.
  5. School hostels
    All of the above, plus any appropriate specific measures, need to be taken to ensure social distancing, hygiene, screening and possible quarantining in school hostels.
  6. Psychological issues
    Once partial re-opening has taken place, attention should be paid at all levels to the psychosocial issues arising from the entire epidemic, amongst learners and teachers. Schools will need to discourage stigmatisation of any of those contracting the virus and should counteract the spread of rumour and fake news.
  7. Online and remote teaching
    But there are serious problems with online and remote teaching as the sole means of instruction: Full-on online or remote teaching is educationally not as sound as “blended” learning, which includes elements of the online or remote and the face-to-face. We are strong advocates of this over the long-term.

    Schools that are able to should continue with online and remote teaching as a supplement to face-to-face teaching wherever possible. This could include the use of radio as well as apps such as Zoom, and of course normal online teaching. This would free schools from learner attendance. The Western Cape is doing an enormous amount to promote this at schools and we advocate that the national department follows our example.

  8. Zero-rated content
    The gazetted requirement that all educational content should be zero-rated (to make it cheaper to buy) has not led to a wide enough range of educational content being zero-rated. Further coverage needs to be ensured.
  9. Other practical suggestions
    • The use of libraries and community halls as points of access to IT facilities for the “electronically disadvantaged”.
    • The development and use of provincial e-learning portals along the lines already developed in the Western Cape.
    • The establishment of “banks” of computers for loan to learners using their fee account as the surety.
    • The development of systematic partnerships with other departments of government (Communications etc.) to ensure a “whole-of-society” approach to online teaching.
    • Recommending to learners the use of phone sim-cards for access to the Vodacom e-school.
    • The possible use of “wi-fi trucks” to act as hotspots for particular areas.
    • Where online teaching cannot be organized, course content may need to be printed or put on data-sticks and delivered to learners – again here the Western Cape provides a model for other provinces.

The DA will monitor the situation throughout

Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, has said that her department will devote much of the month of May to the preparation of schools for opening. This preparation will need to be extremely detailed and highly organised, across thousands of institutions and involving thousands of teachers and other staff. Systematic and vital health and safety requirements will be required of each school.

In addition to this, it is urgent that the Minister gazettes the dates of return of learners to school, as the uncertainty she has created is unsettling for parents.

However, the DA is concerned about some of the provinces’ capacity to implement these requirements in time, throughout the system.

Each school will need to be ready to manage a strict, detailed set of protocols designed to protect learners and teachers against infection by COVID-19 before any learners are admitted. Whether this can be done adequately in all parts of the country, so that our 13 million learners and thousands of teachers are properly protected in the 25 days of May set aside for it, is uncertain.

The DA will therefore be monitoring schools in every province to ensure that the implementation of these plans takes place; and we will ensure that the Basic Education Portfolio Committee receives progress reports weekly from the Department itself.