Sibongile Maseko, a Grade 1 learner at Hector Peterson Primary School in Dobsonville, Soweto. Picture: Veli Nhlapo
Sibongile Maseko, a Grade 1 learner at Hector Peterson Primary School in Dobsonville, Soweto. Picture: Veli Nhlapo

As the Covid-19 pandemic spread, schools around the world were closed in an attempt to limit contagion. In SA, this did not just cost pupils learning time, it also resulted in an increase in child hunger.

These, and other effects of the pandemic on children, have been documented by three waves of the Nids-Cram survey. Using data from November/December, we can provide updates on school attendance, parental concerns, health risks and the recovery of school feeding programmes.

In July, attendance varied considerably across school grades. Though as many as 88% of grade 12 learners attended school in the seven days prior to the Nids-Cram interview, this was significantly below the normal attendance rate of about 98%.

In the same period, school attendance for grades "not yet open" (schools could obtain permission to open) varied according to a household’s socioeconomic status. Roughly half of children in closed grades from the richest 10% of households attended school in July, compared with only about 20% in the rest of the population.

The good news is that by November, when all grades were officially open, weekly attendance rates appeared to be up significantly — at the usual 98%, from an average of just 37% across all grades in July.

At the same time, differences in weekly attendance correlated with household wealth had also disappeared, suggesting school reopening plays a role in enhancing equity.

However, daily attendance may be lower than the figures suggest. It is, after all, affected by stipulations that classroom occupancy should not exceed 50% of capacity and that physical distancing of 1m be observed.

These have serious implications for learning time. For most public schools, implementation of the guidelines is only possible through rotational attendance (learners or classes attend school every second day or every other week).

Taking 2020 school closures and attendance restrictions into account, the learning time lost for the grades that opened last is estimated to be about 120 school days of a possible 198.

Comparable studies on the impact of such disruptions indicate long-term effects such as lower educational attainments for pupils, and lower lifetime earnings. These effects are likely to be greater for children in poorer and vulnerable households.

In the educational sense, then, the most enduring legacy of the pandemic is likely to be the disruption to early learning opportunities, which will affect social and economic inequalities in SA for years to come.

The latest Nids-Cram results suggest adult anxiety about schools reopening has eased considerably since July, with the proportion of respondents expressing a high level of worry falling from 73% to 52%.

While these perceptions are important, the more crucial thing to monitor is whether attendance contributes to unacceptable health risks.

International studies and local monitoring indicate that children, especially younger ones, face significantly lower risk when it comes to Covid-19. They are less likely to become infected, much less likely to become seriously ill, and are not responsible for most of the virus’s spread.

This remains true with the new variant prevalent in SA, as indicated by an analysis of data from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD). In early January, someone aged 50-54 was 76 times more likely to be hospitalised than someone aged 5-9.

The number of deaths also remains low for children. According to the NICD, only 19 children in the 5-9 range died from Covid-19 between March 5 2020 and January 23. About 3,000 children in this age group die annually from other infections and causes.

It’s harder to make strong conclusions about the health risk for teachers, due to data constraints. Given their age profile, teachers are at higher risk than children — but it is unclear whether their attendance at school plays a role. A January NICD report found "no consistent changes in incidence trends associated with the timing of opening or closing of schools".

One of the largest social programmes in SA is the national school nutrition programme (NSNP).

In July, 25% of Nids-Cram wave 2 respondents reported that learners in their households had received a school meal in the seven days leading up to the interview. By November, this had almost doubled to 48%.

Still, data from the Stats SA General Household Survey of 2018 suggests 65% of learners were receiving weekly school meals before the pandemic. So while learners may be eligible for a daily meal, the different timetable options necessitated by the pandemic may still be affecting school feeding.

So what next? The three-year curriculum recovery plan adopted by the department of basic education is commendable. However, further learning losses should be minimised as far as is safe, as these will have the most enduring negative impact on children.

While precautionary school protocols should remain in place, aspects such as the 1m social distancing requirement could be reconsidered for primary schools, in light of the lower risk posed.

A return to normal timetabling, perhaps initially in the early grades, may also be required to maximise the recovery of learning and improve equity across the system.

Finally, the contribution of the NSNP in fighting child hunger, malnutrition and stunting warrants concerted efforts to ensure that children receive their daily meals.

*Mohohlwane and Taylor work for the department of basic education; Shepherd is with Stellenbosch University

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