The department of basic education has revised its plans for the return of some learners to school, as government battles to restart the education sector amid the rapid spread of the coronavirus.

Basic education minister Angie Motshekga said during a news conference on Sunday that only grades 6 and 11 learners are expected to go back to school on Monday.  Last week, the department said grade R, which includes the foundation phase, would also return to school on Monday.

However, Motshekga said only those provinces and schools ready to receive grade R learners would do so on Monday. The rest will have to provide detailed plans to ensure the safe integration of grade R before the end of July, she said.

Various teacher unions had expressed their reservations about the return of grades R, 6 and 11 to school on Monday, citing the increasing number of coronavirus cases and the lack of preparedness of some schools. The provincial education department in KwaZulu-Natal had also indicated it opposed the return of grade R. 

Grade 7 and grade 12 learners returned to schools on June 8. The other grades will be phased in during July and August, based on various considerations including the spread of the coronavirus across the country, the department of basic education said.

Motshekga said there was no evidence that schools were becoming a hotspot of the virus. She said, however, that the department would remain cautious as more learners return to school in the coming weeks.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that children and adolescents are as likely to become infected as any other age groups and can spread the disease, but are less likely to get severe symptoms.

Motshekga said the lockdown had had an adverse effect on many learners, some of whom rely on school feeding schemes for meals. Furthermore, many were unable to get access to learning materials as they lacked internet connectivity.

In June, Stellenbosch University economists Nic Spaull and Servaas van der Berg argued that learners should all return to school immediately.

In new research, Spaull and Van der Berg calculated that the risks of missed school, the lack of school meals, childhood anxiety and a lack of supervision far outweigh the risks of dying from Covid-19.

The pair concluded that the risk of death is “virtually nonexistent for children”. After looking at many studies, they say the risk of a teacher or child dying from Covid-19 is far lower than the risk of a normal cause of death. Data from the Human Sciences Research Council suggests that childhood malnutrition has increased due to the lockdown. And malnutrition is a contributing factor in the three top killers of SA children: HIV, pneumonia and diarrhoea.

Spaull and Van der Berg also argued that trying to mitigate the negligible risk of severe Covid-19 with social distancing in overcrowded state schools is “futile” and will instead just delay learning.

“The department of basic education should acknowledge that it is not feasible for most SA schools to practise social distancing within the classroom,” they stated.

With Katharine Child

Minister of basic education Angie Motshekga. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA
Minister of basic education Angie Motshekga. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA

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