Grade 12 learners from Unathi High School. Picture: Sibongile Ngalwa
Grade 12 learners from Unathi High School. Picture: Sibongile Ngalwa

UN secretary-general António Guterres has called the effects of the pandemic on learning a global generational catastrophe. In SA, latest Nids-Cram survey results suggest as many as 750,000 children have not returned to school this year.

At the start of the pandemic, international experts recommended the closing of schools as a strategic response to reduce viral spread. Research now shows that school closures are neither necessary nor effective at mitigating spread. But the unintended negative effects thereof are far-reaching.

Using Nids-Cram data collected over 12 months, we were able examine changes in learner attendance, hunger and access to school meals over time, as well as changes in caregiver and teacher outcomes.

Estimates from the third wave of the survey indicated a recovery in school attendance in November 2020, but we now know that one in 10 households said at least one school-aged child had not returned to the classroom by April 2021. Our data shows that about 650,000-750,000 children aged seven to 17 have not been back to school this year — an increase of 400,000-500,000 on pre-pandemic figures.

SA, like most developing countries, had near-universal school attendance since 2002, with about 98% of all children aged seven to 17 attending class. Though absence (or disengagement) from school is not unique to SA, it should be of great concern, as extended absence often leads to pupils dropping out of school.

Nids-Cram respondents were not explicitly asked why children had not returned to school, but drawing from previous household surveys and the department of basic education’s national education evaluation & development unit (NEEDU) report, reasons appear related to disruptions such as forgetting which day to attend school in the rotational attendance timetable, and anxiety brought on by not having done the work allocated for “home learning”.

It’s also been important to understand how parents and guardians feel about their children returning to school during the pandemic, and it’s a question we’ve asked four times over the year.

Adult worry declined dramatically from 74% in July 2020 to its lowest level, 45%, in April 2021. It is, however, notable that levels of adult worry can be linked to food security, including children accessing meals at school through the national school nutrition programme.

At the start of 2021, caregivers reported that school meal access had not improved since November 2020. By April 2021, however, biweekly access had increased significantly, to 56%. This was starting to converge on weekly pre-pandemic figures.

We also found that changes in adult worry are based on conditions of poverty and access to government grants, as well as the rate of Covid infection.

When it comes to Covid infections among children and teachers, we drew on a department of basic education analysis of excess deaths using teacher administrative data, as well as the latest updates from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD).

What it means:

If school children are absent from class for extended periods, they’re at increased risk of dropping out of school altogether

Over a 10-week period between February and April 2021 — overlapping with term 1 of the school calendar — we found that 171 excess teacher deaths were recorded. Prior to this, about 1,100 excess deaths were recorded in an eight-week period overlapping with the December/January school holidays.

Considering this analysis, as well as local and international evidence, it remains clear that the largest risk to teachers is community transmission in line with infection peaks, not the opening of schools. This was also reaffirmed by the NICD last month.

What about children? While there has been heightened media reporting on infections among children, the NICD maintains that children aged up to 19 have a lower infection rate, now estimated to be 5.5 times lower than for those older than 19. Children also have a 13.3 times lower chance of hospitalisation than older individuals, and schools have not emerged as primary transmission sites or contributors to peaks in infections.

The low risk of infection among children in general, and the absence of increased risk through being at school — for children and teachers alike — coupled with the teacher vaccine drive that began on June 23, should compel us to refrain from disrupting schools and learning any further.

Though rotational attendance and school closures are intended to reduce viral transmission, they may be contributing to “disengagement” from school. In light of this, we strongly support the government’s decision to return to full-time, daily and traditional timetable attendance of primary school learners.

Shepherd is with the department of economics at Stellenbosch University; Mohohlwane is with the department of basic education

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