The Portfolio Committee on Basic Education, and the Select Committee on Education and Technology, Sports, Arts and Culture were briefed by the Director-General of the Department of Basic Education, Mr Mathanzima Mweli, on the phased school reopening plans during the Covid-19 lockdown.

In presenting the plans Mr Mweli assured members of the two committees that the department has consulted widely, particularly its stakeholders, and that it drew lessons from other countries in the world to mitigate the risks.

Mentioning some of the countries, he said: “Taiwan closed schools for only two weeks and tightened social distancing within the schools. He said China closed from 20 January to 6 February and reopened thereafter. In Denmark, Sweden and Singapore schools never closed.”

He said the department took everything into serious consideration as it worked out the plan, factors such as the number of schools, teachers and learners. He said the principals, heads of departments and the chairpersons of the school governing bodies are going to arrive first at the schools to ensure that the schools are sanitised.

Mr Mweli said the department has developed guidelines for maintenance of hygiene measures at schools and the guidelines, he said, include compulsory screening of teachers, learners and the general school staff.

He told the joint meeting that there is going to be a virtual training of teachers and non-teaching staff on social distancing and other hygiene strategies to curb Covid-19 infections in schools. He said basic necessities will be in place before reopening and workers above 60 years of age are going to be encouraged to work from home.

The committees heard that Grades 12 and Grade 7 will reopen ahead of the other grades on 4 May and will be followed by the rest in the manner they are paired, Grades 11 and 6; Grades 10 and 5; Grades 9 and 4; Grades 8 and 3; Grades 2 and 1, and the last one will be Grade R.

Mr Mweli told the committees that the school calendar has been altered significantly, and there will be no mid-year examinations, it will be included in the November examinations, he said.

In ensuring the committees on social distancing, Mr Mweli said learners should not be more than two in a double combination desk and there will be no hugging. He said the department will supply masks to quintal schools one to three, for the rest, masks will be the responsibility of parents.

On transport, he said transport is like a two-way street, that is, a responsibility between the parents and the department. From home to the transport, he said, that is the responsibility of the parents, and between the home and the school, it is the responsibility of the department.

Members of the committee told the department that comparing Singapore, which has a population of less than a million, with South Africa, with a population of tens of millions, was misleading.

They said there is no problem of overcrowded classrooms in Singapore for example. In South Africa, in black schools overcrowding is one of the clear features of black education.

They said the supply of masks to certain quintals and not to others is a problem, as ordinarily all learners must have masks. They also highlighted the old problem of the lack of water and sanitation, especially in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal provinces which they said there is no hope that the government will ever provide water in those provinces, even during the lockdown period.

Some members of the committees told the department that it was impossible for them to believe that the plans are going to work in areas such as scholar transport and nutrition, areas that have been experiencing serious challenges long before the arrival of coronavirus.

They told Mr Mweli that the department must be mindful of the fact that, he Western Cape is the epicentre of Covid-19, and that the lives of children should not be risked. They said the plan on overcrowding, of additional prefab or temporary classes, is worrying to say the least.

Responding to the questions and concerns of the members of the committees, the Deputy Minister of Basic Education, Dr Makgabo Mhaule, told the committees that the plan of the department is not a one size fits all. She said as Grades 12 and 7 are going to reopen first, the situation is going to be monitored. If there are risks, she said, certainly they will be dealt with and the schools will be closed again if there’s a need for that, as the department and the government put the life of the child above all else.

In conclusion, the Chairpersons of the committees who co-chaired the joint meeting, called on their members to support the department and said each member must make his or her contribution to ensure that the plan works, as the children are the future of South Africa and the alpha and omega of the country.

By Mava Lukani
30 April 2020