Picture: DAILY DISPATCH
Picture: DAILY DISPATCH

The department of basic education has presented parliament with an ambitious plan for restarting schools, promising to provide millions of cloth masks and ensure thousands of institutions are provided with emergency water supplies within a matter of weeks.

The government ordered the closure of schools shortly before the Easter holidays as one of its first steps to curb transmission of Covid-19, after the first case was confirmed in SA on March 5. The potentially deadly respiratory disease, caused by the Sars-Cov-2 coronavirus, has swept around the globe in the past four months. More than 3.1-million cases have been recorded around the world, with close to 5,000 in SA.

The plan, presented in a virtual meeting of MPs on Wednesday by the department’s director-general Hubert Mweli, proposes a phased return to school, starting with grades 12 and 7 on May 6. The plan was simultaneously presented to the National Command Council (NCC), which is expected to finalise the dates for opening schools, followed by a formal announcement by basic education minister Angie Motshekga on Thursday.

Part of the rationale for opening schools is that children are unlikely to transmit the disease, Mweli told a joint meeting of parliament’s portfolio committee on basic education and its select committee on education and technology, sports, arts and culture.

Nevertheless, the department is proposing stringent social-distancing measures within school grounds; temperature-screening of pupils; mandatory wearing of cloth face masks; and extensive new hygiene protocols. All sports matches, choral practices, and large cultural events will be prohibited.

The department will provide two cloth masks per pupil to all schools in the lower four quintiles, Mweli said. The department categorises schools into five quintiles, based on the socio-economic status of the community it serves.

There are an estimated 3,500 schools with “critical water-supply challenges” Mweli said. Department officials are working with their counterparts in the department of water and sanitation to ensure potable water is delivered in tankers to these schools within a fortnight, he said.

The phased return to school, which has been discussed with unions and school governing bodies, proposes a staggered resumption of teaching. Grades are to return at fortnightly intervals, starting with the most senior grades in secondary and primary schools, and gradually working down towards the entry grades.

The plan proposes shortening the school holidays and deferring midyear exams until the end of 2020 to complete the curriculum. As a result, a record-breaking cohort of 1.1-million students are expected to write exams at the end of the year, and it is likely that their results will only be announced towards the end of January 2021, said Mweli. The department usually announces matric results in the first week of January.

The National Alliance of Independent Schools Associations has asked the department to give private schools the flexibility to open on different dates to those proposed in the phased-in plan, provided they can do so safely, said its chairperson Mandla Mthembu.

“Given the many variables in the independent school sector, from size of the school campus to the enrolment figures and location of schools, a one-size fits all approach will not be feasible,” he said.

The alliance has also appealed to the department to provide masks, sanitisers and thermometers to independent schools, and not just to those in the public sector, he said.

kahnt@businesslive.co.za