‘Schools are good for children’ – ABESA response to reopening of SA schools
The Anglican Church of Southern Africa’s response to Minister Motshekga’s announcement about reopening of South Africa’s schools, issued 19 May 2020
The Anglican Church welcomes the announcement made by the Minister of Basic Education, Minister Angie Motshekga on 19 May 2020, especially as it reflects wide prior consultation and care to address the concerns of all parties.
The Minister’s mantra, ‘Schools are good for children’ was bolstered by citations from UNICEF and emphasised the place of schools in providing not only educational building blocks but a framework for children’s daily life, mental health, physical security and socialisation. The tension between needing to bring South Africa’s children off the streets back into this environment, and the need to protect the health of children, families, educators and school employees constitutes our dilemma.
The Minister’s statistic that 1577 schools have been vandalised during the national lockdown points to both a malaise in our society which needs to be understood and addressed, and practical security issues for School Governing Bodies and the Department to address.
The Anglican Church pledges its support to the reopening process both in the many detailed discussions which are still required, and in the local implementation of the plan at community level where we work.
In this context of co-operation the Church would plead for the following:
1: While caution around the reopening process dominates communication at this stage, the overall tone of the process should be one of actively moving forward with readmitting children to schools as soon as possible. This is because ‘schools are good for children’ and while it may be true that some village and township schools are said to be not yet ready for reoccupation, the streets in which the very same children will play until the schools are open to them, are much more dangerous – in terms of food security, physical safety, and infection by COVID-19 among other winter diseases.
We would plead that the proposed phasing programme is kept under constant review with a view to being accelerated in every way, even if this means geographical and other anomalies. Bureaucratic compliance in lockstep to keep officials happy must come second to flexibility in getting children into safe educationally supervised spaces. Educators are good at managing children, even if they have to teach them hygiene measures and distancing, and children are much safer in their care than wandering free while their parents are out at work.
Minister Motshekga’s pointed reference to the strike of 2010, following which many learners in poorer communities are known never to have returned to school, is a solemn warning and a call for justice in our current context.
There must be a clear code of requirements for admitting more grades, but any school which declares itself ready and willing to proceed with readmitting more children, whether public or independent in terms of the Constitution and the Schools Act, should be allowed and actively encouraged to do so, provided they demonstrate compliance with the code. Ideally no school should go ahead without all being able to do likewise but the spectrum of schools in this country and the chaos caused by vandalism rules out the delays and consequent injustice which this would cause for the majority of children. It goes without saying that the Minister’s assurances about water and toilets are welcome and she should be supported in her efforts to secure compliance from all Provincial Departments in this regard.
Particular attention must be paid to the smallest children. According to some drafts of the phasing programme, Grades 1, 2 and R may only return to school as late as August 2020. But the Minister announced that in consultation with the Minister of Social Development, efforts would be made to enable ECD centres to reopen in June. This is a recipe for township parents to enrol their Grade R children in those centres for safe-keeping until August, when they would be better off in the care of qualified educators. The architecture of most primary schools ensures distancing already between the Foundation and Intermediate Phases; we suggest that thought be given to bringing a Foundation Phase grade into the premises in parallel with a higher one, for example Grade 1 returning with Grade 6 and so on. This should create no difficulty with space or distancing.
2: The educator body in this country are mostly public-spirited and professional people who have chosen their profession out of care for children and a desire to build our society. They should be honoured and supported in the present process. It is good that pleas from educators and their unions for safety in the workplace have been heard in the Department’s consultations and attended to, even if this has delayed reopening. Safety concerns for all parties are paramount.
However these concerns should not paralyse well-planned and executed strategies to care also for the country’s children, and to obviate gaps in the acquisition of essential building blocks of learning. Some draft schedules of the planned phasing of the return to school, showing deficits of 82-102 days of teaching for some children, are of deep concern especially when the physical safety of smaller children out of school is considered. Everything must be done to close these gaps.
Therefore we must appeal to educators for flexibility in their professional response at this time – to adjust willingly to modifications in working patterns or the curriculum, to co-operate with requests for platooning or stepping into grades they do not normally teach, and to place the needs of children ahead of labour demands at least until the end of 2021 while the catch-up process goes on.
3: All school feeding schemes should reopen and feed all children registered at schools in the relevant quintiles.
There is an acute food security crisis under way in this country, but distributing food parcels and increasing child grants in the hands of adults are erratic means of addressing the nutritional needs of children. The best way to feed children is to feed them. When the schools were closed in March 2020, some 9 million children depended on these schemes in school premises for a daily meal. The infrastructure remains in place – kitchens on school grounds, pots and spoons, experienced people contracted to prepare food, and budgets which Provincial Departments have not utilised for 8 weeks. These schemes should be reopened immediately and empowered to feed all children at their schools without application of a means test. School Management Teams which will be under-utilised in the early phases of reopening should manage access of their school’s children to the grounds at fixed hours when the readmitted learners are in class and ensure distancing is taught and practised while children eat – and if not yet readmitted, leave the premises.
This simple step would eliminate about 20% of the country’s hunger crisis at a stroke.
‘Schools are good for children’, and we need our children back in the schools.
The Anglican Board of Education on behalf of ACSA.