Ordinarily, about 12-million learners attend more than 25,700 schools in SA. On March 18 all those schools closed as part of the government’s response to Covid-19.

By June, a phased reopening was introduced, as emerging evidence showed that children, especially young children, appear less likely to contract Covid-19, are at particularly low risk of becoming severely ill and are not super-spreaders of the virus.

The move was heavily opposed by some, both publicly and legally. However, the biggest costs of school closure — increased inequality in access and learning losses — have not received sufficient attention.

Using wave 2 data from the Nids-Cram survey, collected in June and July, as well as monitoring data from the department of basic education, we answer five questions:

  • What were attendance rates like?
  • How worried were parents about the return of learners to school?
  • Did reopening lead to an unacceptable spread of infections?
  • What were the costs to children of the school closures? and
  • What now?

School attendance rates during the phased reopening were significantly lower at the time of the wave 2 survey than in normal times — even among grades that were officially open (6, 7, 11 and 12). However, considering the exceptional circumstances, attendance was encouragingly high, reaching about 88% for matrics.

Among learners in grades "not yet open" — where schools could apply for permission to reopen — respondents in the wealthiest 10% of households were three times more likely to report that children were attending school than those in the poorest 80% (see graph).

Though the phased reopening was arguably necessary, attendance in "not yet open" grades especially highlights the importance of a government-led broad reopening of schools. Without this, inequalities in access to education and learning may deepen.

Despite attendance being relatively high, 72% of respondents reported being "very worried" about learners returning to school. However, this varied significantly: more affluent households had lower concern, while there was higher concern among larger households with very young children and pensioners.

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It’s challenging to explain this difference, as the survey did not ask adults to provide reasons for their concerns. Nonetheless, it did not actually affect school attendance patterns. This may mean that parents are aware both of the risk of the pandemic, and of the need for schooling to resume. This is important, as these fears have previously been cited as a reason to close schools.

School reopening has been an enormous logistical undertaking, involving the development and publication of a series of plans, guidelines, protocols and interventions.

To what extent did it contribute to an unacceptable spread of Covid-19?

Based on an analysis of provincial reports in early July, less than 4% of SA’s 25,700 schools had to be closed and reopened after June 8 due to Covid-19 cases or noncompliance with safety protocols.

The evidence so far confirms that children are not super-spreaders, that schools are not often the original sites of infection and that infection rates among teachers were not significantly higher than among other workers of a similar age.

A key concern should be the cost of closures. Most grades (1-5 and 8-10) have lost up to 40% of school days in 2020. Given rotational timetabling to ensure social distancing, this is probably an underestimate.

Very poor access to computers and unstable home internet connections have meant that online learning has not been possible for most schools.

Also important is that schools are not only locations for learning; they also offer social protection, and support learner wellbeing.

Only about 25% of learners living with Nids-Cram wave 2 respondents received a daily meal regardless of grades or school attendance — less than one-third of school meal recipients under full operation. Which means school closures also contributed to child hunger.

So what’s next? Should schools remain open? This is particularly important, considering both the low health risk posed by school openings and the high risks to learning and child wellbeing posed by closures.

Efforts should be made to minimise further losses in teaching time through more efficient school timetabling and, where appropriate, more lenient application of regulations.

For instance, the regulations may be more relaxed for early grades, given that young children are at especially low risk and may find certain measures traumatic.

Finally, it is important to communicate clearly to multiple audiences the dangers of Covid-19 and the importance of adhering to safety protocols, as well as the importance and relative safety of attending school.

*Mohohlwane is with the department of basic education; Taylor, also with the department, is a research associate in the department of economics at Stellenbosch University; Shepherd is a member of the department of economics at the university

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