A Grade 7 learner from Funukukhanya Primary School at Tsakani, Ekhuruleni. Picture: Freddy Mavunda
A Grade 7 learner from Funukukhanya Primary School at Tsakani, Ekhuruleni. Picture: Freddy Mavunda

Last week we launched the results of the National Income Dynamics Study: Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey, which showed that 3-million people have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic and the lockdown, two-thirds of them women. As we now contemplate whether to close schools again, we must acknowledge the associated costs — for families and especially women and children.

The government has the incredibly difficult task of balancing plague and famine. What our earlier results showed was that the costs of the lockdown and the pandemic have been felt mainly by the poor, the less educated, those in the informal sector, and especially women. Only 5% of the rich have lost their jobs, compared with 38% of the poor (where the poor are those earning R3,000 or less a month and the rich are those earning upwards of R24,000 a month).

The government is trying to be responsive to this and is aware of who is most affected by these lockdowns. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s latest speeches make that clear. As he said at the beginning of the month: “The issue of another hard lockdown is something we’re not considering now … the issue of losses of jobs is concerning to us … when we moved to the various other levels, including level 3, we were responding to trying to stem the job losses that could ensue from the hard lockdown.”

Yet we are about to do the exact same thing in schooling: a nationwide lockdown of all schools. The decision to close schools, like the decision to close the economy, should not be taken lightly. It is likely to have far-reaching consequences and would have incredibly high costs for women and children in particular. Of course there are costs to reopening schools, but there are also costs to closing them. The question is whether the benefits of opening schools outweigh the costs, and I believe they do. Let me explain.

First, you cannot reopen the economy without reopening schools. Working parents (including doctors and nurses) don’t have anywhere to put their kids while schools are closed but they are expected to go back to work. Researchers Andrew Kerr and Amy Thornton estimate there are about 4.5-million essential workers, about 650,000 of whom are health-care workers at the frontline of this pandemic. What are they meant to do with their children when they go to work?

And we are no longer in the world where only essential workers are at work. Now that we are at level 3, there are literally millions of parents who have to go back to work but don’t know what to do with their children. Some might be able to arrange extended family care or neighbours to help, but we are talking about taking care of 12-million children who are normally at school from Monday to Friday. Child care and schooling is an essential component of our country’s economic infrastructure and an essential part of our pandemic response.

Second, there are now 9-million and one reasons children need to be at school. On July 17 judge Sulet Potterill ruled that basic education minister Angie Motshekga was in breach of her constitutional duty, having suspended the provision of free school meals to 9-million children who rely on them, and that this was “an extreme rights infringement”. Potterill went on to say: “A more undignified scenario than starvation of a child is unimaginable.”

If one considers the logistics of providing free meals to 9-million children, that is practically impossible if schools are closed.

Third, there is no evidence that schools lead to above-average Covid-19 infections among teachers or pupils. It is true that some teachers have been infected with Covid-19, but it’s also true that many teachers were infected even before schools were opened.

Teachers are more likely to get infected in their community than at school. Analysis of 709 Gauteng schools shows that Covid-19 infection rates are no higher among teachers than among similar people in the Gauteng population as a whole. Put differently, just because teachers get infected doesn’t mean they got it at school.

Further evidence comes from hospital admission data from the Western Cape during its Covid-19 surge and provides reassuring evidence. Opening schools had little impact on children getting infected with Covid-19 or getting admitted to hospitals.

The question should not be whether to close schools again, or whether to close the economy again — the costs are simply too high. The question should be how we implement and enforce a set of safety measures to ensure that any transmission is minimised in the workplace and at schools. All other government officials as well as those in the private sector have gone back to work and implemented social distancing, wearing masks and so on. But somehow teachers are different?

The evidence is showing that teachers are not at higher risk than others and yet they are being paid whether they work or not. By refusing to work they are risking the lives of children and undermining other parts of society that rely on schools at this critical time. The “nuclear” option of a hard lockdown or nationwide school closures will be devastating, especially for children and women.

By forcing parents to choose between going to work and taking care of their children, it will also weaken our ability to fight the pandemic. Limiting Covid-19 infections must be the top priority, but it cannot come “at any cost”. We must find another way.

*Dr Nic Spaull is a senior researcher in the research on socio-economic policy group at Stellenbosch University

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