Dear Minister Motshekga, Minister Phaahla and Minister Dlamini-Zuma,
As schools reopen for 2022, we write to you as a collective of concerned civil society organisations. Over the past two years, there has been ongoing harm to learners as a result of the significant amount of time that they have been forced to spend at home instead of being in classrooms. Since March 2020, learners have not been attending school consistently, resulting in significant learning time being lost. This has been due to rotational timetabling and blanket approaches to school closures. This continued time away from school has hurt learners’ access to school meals and to psychosocial support, and resulted in an increase in drop-out rates. This lost learning time has particularly affected learners in under-resourced public schools (mainly quintile 1 – 3 schools) who are, by no fault of their own, unable to adhere to the guidelines and protocols which have been published by the Department of Basic Education (DBE), and the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA), in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. These guidelines and protocols are said to be informed by the Department of Health. The inability to conform to the guidelines and protocols is due to the dire state of infrastructure which existed in many schools prior to the pandemic, and is characterised by overcrowding and lack of access to water and toilets. Each additional day of lost learning has a lasting and lifelong impact on the interests of children and their right to a quality basic education. We urge you not to allow this state of affairs to continue into a third year.
We were greatly disappointed by Minister Motshekga’s announcement, during a school readiness briefing this past week, that learners would continue with rotational school attendance. The hope had been that schools would return to full time attendance in 2022, as we have witnessed the severe implications of learners only being at school on some days.
By way of background, schools reopened in June 2020, following over two months of hard lockdown across the country. Given the unprecedented nature of the pandemic and uncertainties, to ensure that learners and teachers were safe in schools, and to allow for social distancing to take place, the DBE and provincial education departments (PEDs), introduced rotational timetabling. This meant that learners attended school on alternate days or weeks. Rotational attendance was meant to be a temporary intervention aimed to bring learners back into the classroom while simultaneously minimising the risk of learners contracting and spreading the virus. However, what was meant to be a temporary response to the pandemic has remained the norm for the past 18 months – despite the change in medical evidence around transmission and the availability of vaccines for teachers, parents and older children.
We have already started to see that the continued use of the rotational timetabling approach will have very serious consequences for the quality of educational outcomes for learners. In a presentation to Parliament by the DBE on 1 June 2021, it was said that 75% of learning in 2020 was lost as a result of interrupted and reduced learning time. This evidence is empirically supported by the results of wave five of the National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM), which states that learners across the country lost between 70% to 100% (a full year) of learning between March 2020 and June 2021.
In May 2021, the DBE published a Direction announcing the full return to daily attendance and traditional timetables for all primary school learners (Grades R to 7) and schools for learners with special education needs (Grades R to 12) from 02 August 2021. The understanding was that these learners would resume pre-Covid full-time attendance at school. In addition to the above, the Directions reduced social distancing in primary schools to one metre (1.0m) from the previously prescribed one-and-a-half metres (1.5m). All schools which were unable to return to traditional timetabling were required to inform the head of the relevant provincial education department that they would continue with rotational attendance. According to the Direction published on 31 July 2021, provincial MECs are now required to submit monthly reports to you, Minister Motshekga, which should include reasons why schools are unable to return to the pre-Covid traditional attendance. These reports further require a plan with the proposed dates for the return of all primary school learners to a traditional attendance model, as well as detailed steps that will be taken to make sure that learners can return to school safely.
Despite current Directions requiring provincial departments to actively work towards ensuring the return to full capacity and traditional attendance for all primary schools, there is no indication whether MECs submitted the necessary reports last year and if they have done so for the new year. Worryingly, there is also no indication regarding the steps or support being put in place, to ensure that all primary schools across South Africa are enabled to return to full capacity. An additional worry is whether or not HoDs have simply rubber-stamped the continuation of rotational school attendance without first satisfying themselves that its continuation is indeed necessary. It is concerning that this is the case, in circumstances where the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) in July 2021 specifically advised that the harms of learners attending school on a rotational basis – specifically the severe cognitive, nutritional, and psychosocial costs – exceed the benefits of reduced Covid-19 infections from smaller class sizes. The rotational timetables were initially implemented to accommodate the MAC’s previous recommendations. As a result of new and emerging evidence, the MAC’s recommendations have justifiably been revised. Despite the MAC’s advice, it is alarming that schools are set to continue with rotational timetabling in 2022!
Information reaching us as this collective – preliminary research findings from an evaluation of early grade reading and mathematics interventions by Nic Spaull (Associate Professor of Economics at Stellenbosch University and the co-principal investigator of NIDS-CRAM) – shows that learner daily attendance was at 14% in term three of 2021 in the Western Cape alone. Alarmingly, 869 primary schools in the province, representing 86% of the 1010 primary schools, have been approved to continue with rotational attendance this year because of their limited capacity to adhere to all the health and safety regulations – particularly the one metre physical distancing rule. This means only 14% of schools in the province are and will be operating at full capacity! Similarly in Limpopo, it was found that only 10% of learners in Limpopo attended school every day in terms one and two of 2021, while only 48% of children in no-fee schools attended school every day in term three. In addition to this, anecdotal reports suggest that as many as 70% of schools in some provinces have applied to remain on rotational attendance for the current academic year.
Ongoing rotational attendance is highly problematic. The risks associated with it (massive learning losses and loss of additional support services provided at school), now outweigh the health risks associated with returning to traditional timetabling. This is especially so since schools are not only sites of knowledge transfer but are also spaces that provide vital support services such as school meals and access to psychosocial support. Coupled with increased cases of learner pregnancy and dropout rates, the continued use of rotational attendance erodes learners’ right to quality basic education and associated rights.
Since the one metre distancing requirement at primary schools was published in the Government Gazette , the country has moved from Covid-19 alert level 3 to alert level 1; the Covid-19 vaccine is readily available to all adults and to children from the age of 12, and all teachers have been given the opportunity to be vaccinated (according to the DBE, uptake has been very positive). Therefore, taking into account all the steps that have been put in place to mitigate against rising infections and the possibility of learners, teachers and school support staff getting ill from the virus, we urge the department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (CoGTA) to do away with physical distancing requirements in schools to ensure that learners’ right to a basic education is no longer compromised.
In instances where the country experiences other Covid-19 waves, as we have seen with the Omicron variant, the DBE must utilise the differentiated risk adjusted strategy as long promised, which allows for context-specific responses. In addition, government, through the NCCC and MAC must develop a long term plan that outlines the education sector’s response to new variants, waves and rise in infections.
Honourable Ministers, it has been over 18 months since the onset of the Covid 19 pandemic – whilst the science has continued to change, the response to schools has remained the same. We cannot continue to allow our children to suffer by having inflexible and detrimental approaches in response to Covid. We implore you Ministers, to work cooperatively and act swiftly to protect the best interests of our children and their right to education. With every day lost we move closer to the creation of a lost generation!
This open letter is written by Equal Education, Equal Education Law Centre, The Learning Trust, Legal Resources Centre, NASCEE and academics.