Basic education minister Angie Motshekga. Picture: GCIS
Basic education minister Angie Motshekga. Picture: GCIS

Schools across SA will open on June 1 in a phased manner, starting with grades 12 and 7, basic education minister Angie Motshekga announced on Tuesday evening.

The plan, approved by cabinet and the national command council on Covid-19  backs away from a proposal put to teacher unions and other interest groups last week, which suggested schools in areas with high transmission of the disease remain shut, and face-to-face teaching resumes for only grade 12 learners.

That plan, a copy of which has been seen by Business Day, proposed that schools in SA’s metros — where transmission of the disease is highest — remain closed, effectively shuttering a fifth of SA’s 25,475 schools. However, the Council of Education Ministers, which includes education MECs and heads of department, agreed on Monday that all provinces and regions should move at the same pace, said the minister.

Basic education minister Angie Motshekga announced that grade 7 and 12 pupils will return to classrooms on June 1 2020 while teachers will return to schools on May 25.

The minister sent a strong signal that the government was willing to take a flexible approach to private schools, small and special needs schools, and was considering opening early childhood education centres sooner rather than later. 

“We are engaging with private schools as a different sector with different challenges. There will be a different approach depending on the circumstances,” she said during a briefing broadcast on national television.

The phased reopening of schools is expected to see learners return in fortnightly intervals, descending through the grades in secondary and primary schools in tandem so that the youngest children return last.

A revised school calendar, setting out new term dates, will shortly be published in the government gazette, she said.

The government ordered schools to close shortly before Easter, less than two weeks after SA’s first case of Covid-19 was confirmed on March 5. The department of basic education has repeatedly delayed announcing its plans for the resumption of face-to-face teaching, as it grapples with how to balance the health risks of opening schools with the potential harm of keeping them closed.

Delays in opening schools have implications not only for learners’ education, but also for the reopening of the economy since many parents depend on schools to safeguard their children while they are at work. While the level 4 of SA’s lockdown permits households to employ domestic childcare, this is unaffordable for most families. Schools also provide vital meals to about 9.6-million children from poor households.

The minister acknowledged that disruption to schooling had potentially far-reaching effects for learners. The plan for re-opening schools has been guided by the department of health and international experience.

“Our plans had to got o the NCC for risk assessment, gudided by facts,” she said.

The minister has faced vocal public opposition from unions over plans to re-open schools, as many provincial education departments have yet to convince teachers that they will be returning to a safe working environment.

“Eighty percent of schools have reported no deliveries of PPE’s (personal protective equipment), the president of the National Professional Teachers' Organisation of SA, Basil Manuel, told Business Day on Tuesday.

Motshekga said supplies had been delivered to provincial depots and would be monitored closely to ensure schools had the equipment they needed. She said the department had entered into an agreement with the department of human settlements, water & sanitation and Rand Water to ensure no school went without water. “Just-in-time delivery will be made,” she said.

The department told parliament last month that 3,500 schools had "critical water supply issues". 

The National Alliance of Independent Schools Associations has previously said it had asked the department of basic education to consider giving private schools the flexibility to resume face-to-face teaching for more grades, rather than relying on the phased approach, if they could safely do so.  There are 1,966 private schools in SA, out of a total of 25,745 schools. 

As of Monday evening, SA had recorded 16,433 cases of Covid-19 and 286 deaths, according to the health department.

kahnt@businesslive.co.za