Throughout 2020, owing to Covid-19, pupils’ right to basic education was undoubtedly compromised, particularly among the poor and working class. As school is set to resume on 15 February, there are mistakes the sector cannot afford to repeat.

Motheo Brodie, Julia Chaskalson and Mila Harding

Providing print learning materials and bridging the digital divide

When schools were abruptly closed in March 2020, pupils were encouraged by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) to continue learning from home. The DBE put measures in place to support remote learning, including making educational resources available online and broadcasting educational content on radio and television. While these were helpful, they were inadequate to support meaningful learning or bridge the many inequalities in schooling in South Africa.

While printed learning materials were supposed to be distributed to pupils in all grades before schools closed, the minister acknowledged this may not have taken place. This meant pupils who could not access the online resources were left in the lurch. In 2020, SECTION27 received reports from schools in Limpopo that they did not have sufficient printed learning materials. The combination of insufficient textbooks and differentiated timetabling models resulted in pupils being forced to leave printed learning materials at school. With a substantial number of schools unable to complete the trimmed curriculum in 2020, more needs to be done to provide textbooks for pupils for each subject, to which they are constitutionally entitled.

Media reports indicate that many schools still lack printed learning materials: the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Basic Education found, on its oversight visit on 5 February 2021, that only 20.7% of schools had received textbooks in the Eastern Cape. As we approach the beginning of the academic year it is critical that the DBE ensures all pupils have access to adequate printed materials by 15 February. Plans need to be put in place for the distribution and collection of printed learning materials by pupils, irrespective of whether their grade is back at school. It is clearly evident that without these materials the majority of pupils are unable to effectively continue learning remotely from home.

Compliance with Covid-19 safety measures

Deputy Minister for Basic Education Dr Reginah Mhaule postponed the reopening of schools from 27 January to 15 February in an effort to relieve pressure on the health system and to allow for further preparation of school environments to ensure pupil and teacher safety. Only 47% of teachers surveyed in a collaborative teacher union National School Readiness Survey said they were confident their schools could comply with Covid-19 safety protocols after reopening. Forty percent reported not having enough hand sanitiser or surface disinfectant and in eight provinces, while 60% of schools claimed they did not have adequate funds or support to procure necessary supplies.

While a presentation from the Director-General of Basic Education Mathanzima Mweli to civil society on 4 February showed that schools have been informed to run orientation sessions for teachers and pupils with respect to safety protocols, no data have been given on the provision of materials such as sanitisers, disinfectants or personal protective equipment (PPE), including masks.

Reports in 2020 showed that poor-quality sanitisers were delivered to some schools, and SECTION27 received complaints that schools did not have enough sanitiser or working infrared thermometers. In November 2020, officials from the Eastern Cape Education Department alleged that the department could not afford to replenish stocks of PPE for pupils in 2021.  Learning from 2020, we can see safety can be jeopardised if the delivery of Covid-19 safety supplies is considered a one-off, box-ticking exercise. Continued oversight, along with the provision of funds to procure supplies on an ongoing basis, is needed.

The basic education sector received no additional funding in 2020 to deal with the additional cost of PPE, sanitisers, mobile classrooms and other essential Covid-19 safety supplies. In fact, basic education’s budget was cut to act as a “donor” department for other government Covid-19 initiatives. These cuts have filtered down to the individual school level, with more than 80% of school principals in three provinces surveyed in the readiness survey reporting not having the funds for Covid-19 essentials, and evidence from 2020 showing that schools are forced to procure these supplies at the expense of other day-to-day necessities like stationery. With the national Budget due to be tabled in less than two weeks it’s crucial that the DBE motivate for the recovery of funds cut to the sector, as well as allocations to procure crucial supplies during this time.

When the reopening of public schools was postponed until 15 February the DBE “encouraged” independent schools to delay reopening too. Many did, however, resume learning – some through online teaching and others through in-classroom instruction. Over the first few weeks of 2021 SECTION27 received numerous complaints from parents and caregivers of pupils at independent schools about the poor state of Covid-19 preparedness at these schools, with whistle-blowers alerting us to the lack of sanitiser, no enforcement of physical distancing or mask wearing, and an absence of clear communication to school communities about what measures were being taken to ensure safety.

The communities of public schools are encouraged to report non-compliance with Covid-19 safety protocols to the DBE hotline (0800 202 933) or their local district office, but compliance-reporting mechanisms for independent schools is unclear. This needs to be clarified and communicated to the communities of these schools urgently.

Retention of pupils in the school system and addressing the determinants of dropout rates

In October 2020, the DBE said it expected that Covid-19 would increase dropout rates in South African schools, owing to the economic impacts and the closure of schools. Due to lack of widespread access to remote learning during the 2020 lockdown and the economic crisis disproportionately hurting poor people, it is likely that dropouts will have affected vulnerable groups of pupils the most.

The data surrounding dropout rates are highly convoluted and varied. The DBE said in it’s presentation in 2020 that between 50% and 56% of youngsters finish Grade 12, based on analysis of household survey data. According to the Zero Dropout Campaign, about 40% of pupils who start Grade 1 will leave the schooling system before completing matric, with more than 90% of dropouts occurring before Grade 9.

Dropout rates are linked to numerous factors, including poor performance in schools, poor teaching, failure and grade repetition, poverty and inequality, and lack of child support. All these lead to “disengagement” with schooling. In 2020, these factors were amplified for many pupils – about 15% were missing from public schools. And more than 300,000 primary school pupils were missing from the school system, which is particularly worrying considering the importance of primary school for future education. If these pupils do return to school they will probably need to repeat a grade and will be a long way behind, which worsens disengagement.

We need drastic interventions – including tracking down students missing from schools, offering counselling and putting targeted catch-up programmes in place – to mitigate the problem. The interventions presented by the DBE on 4 February 2020, to address dropouts and the guidelines for reporting dropouts, are not uniform across provinces and lack detail. Most proposed measures focus solely on making it easier for pupils to return in 2021 and streamlining bureaucratic processes. It is unlikely that this is enough. Although individual schools may attempt, on their own, to recover dropped-out pupils, it is unlikely this will apply to all schools and there is a real chance many will not return to school. The dropout rates in South Africa have been decreasing, but the effects of lockdown may reverse these gains.

While a margin of error was inevitable for the DBE and provincial education departments at the start of lockdown, it’s crucial that we learn from the mistakes of 2020 and adapt to this new reality. Interventions are necessary to minimise the effects of the digital divide by ensuring pupils working from home have access to printed textbooks and guaranteeing the safety of pupils and staff through effective Covid-19 measures at school. It’s also crucial to help pupils catch up from 2020 and fill in educational gaps by spearheading interventions to retain pupils in the basic education system, and recover dropout numbers. DM/MC

Motheo Brodie is a legal researcher in the Education Rights Programme at SECTION27. Julia Chaskalson is a Communications Officer at SECTION27. Mila Harding is a legal researcher in the Education Rights Programme at SECTION27

First published in the Daily Maverick Citizen.