29 April 2020

Media statement: Basic education authorities have not convincingly demonstrated that all schools will be provided with the necessary resources and support to reopen next Wednesday

This morning the Department of Basic Education (DBE) presented its Covid-19 sector plan to Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Basic Education. Equal Education (EE), the Equal Education Law Centre (EELC) and SECTION27 are deeply concerned that the basic education authorities have not convincingly demonstrated that the list of non-negotiables to prevent the spread of Covid-19 will be in place by next Wednesday.

The DBE today presented plans on its broad intentions, but failed to provide crucial detail on what is actually in place. Many questions remain about how basic education authorities will ensure that schools in poor and working class communities are prepared to mitigate against the health risks, and are able to support the learning of children who have been (and continue to be) unable to learn from home due to factors such as lack of access to the internet, to devices, or to electricity.

National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP)

It is deeply disappointing that the DBE has failed to present any plans on the implications of the phased reopening of schools on the national school nutrition programme (NSNP) – both for learners returning to schools and those remaining at home.

There are a range of mechanisms that can be employed to ensure children’s continued access to meals in a safe manner. This includes, for example, food vouchers. The DBE’s failure to consider reactivating the NSNP and to engage with these alternatives jeopardises children’s health and nutritional needs. The DBE must explain how the conditional grant which usually funds the NSNP is being used. It is a requirement of the grant that that money is used for school meals.

Water and toilets

According to today’s presentation by DBE Director-General Mthanzima Mweli, there are 3500 schools requiring emergency water provisioning. The DBE plans to provide mobile toilets to schools to replace pit latrines – there are approximately 3700 schools with plain pit latrines as their only form of sanitation, according to the DBE’s latest National Education Infrastructure Management System (NEIMS) report.

The DBE has been slow to #FixOurSchools, and it must provide comprehensive information on the implementation of these emergency measures.

Personal protection equipment (PPE)

The DBE today indicated that learners in all quintiles will initially receive cloth masks from the DBE, but that parents of learners in quintile four and five schools will eventually be responsible for purchasing masks for their children. There are however many children from low-income households attending quintile four and five schools, and a number of schools that are erroneously classified as quintile four and five schools. The failure to provide masks to these children would be a severe omission.

Extra classrooms and extra teachers

It is unclear how the current plan will enforce social distancing rules. The DBE stated that to ensure social distancing, classroom sizes would be reduced to no more than 40 learners per class. However, classrooms in township and rural schools across the country are notoriously overcrowded, with more than 60 learners per class. To mitigate against this, the DBE has proposed the provision of mobile classrooms. But it is unclear whether an assessment has been conducted to determine exactly how many schools need additional rooms, and whether those schools have received mobile classrooms. The Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure provide the number of learners per classroom under usual circumstances should be 40. The DBE’s plans are therefore simply planning on the basis of what would be required under normal circumstances.

Reduced class sizes also means extra teachers. According to the DBE, teachers who return to school at a later stage of the phased approach, will be in school to support the reducing of class sizes. Further details are desperately required.

The focus on ICT and no clear plans on curriculum support to learners at home

The DBE’s focus on “ICT is the new normal” does not acknowledge the digital divide. What progress is there on implementing measures to increase accessibility to devices and the internet? Today’s Parliamentary briefing did not address plans to support continued learning at home for learners who will only return to school weeks from now. Are printed learning materials going to be provided?

EE, EELC and SECTION27 have written to the DBE outlining some of these concerns and questions in detail. We are yet to receive a response.

Hostels and learners with disabilities

The DBE’s presentation today did not reveal any plans regarding the reopening of school hostels. This will impact learners who currently attend residential schools far from home and has a particular impact on learners with disabilities attending special schools.

Clarity on Covid-19 alert levels

While the DBE presentation noted the different Covid-19 alert levels, it did not clarify whether schools would remain closed in level five areas even if other districts have moved to level four.

To arrange an interview, contact:

Jay-Dee Cyster (Equal Education Communications Officer) 082 924 1352

Tad Khosa (EE Law Centre Media and Communications Coordinator) 081 346 0180

Julia Chaskalson (Section27 Communications Officer) 083 440 2674