Diary Pages: Back to School?

We asked our diarists: Do you think children should go back to school as proposed by the government?  How has the lockdown impacted the education of children?

As South Africa has eased its COVID 19 lockdown to level four, controversy has been mounting over the issue of schooling. The Department of Basic Education faces the question of whether they can save the school year without putting learners, teachers and parents at risk of infection or worsening the spread of the virus.

The country-wide debate over when and how to open schools is echoed amongst our diarists. This is amplified by the lack of consensus amongst experts over the role that children can play in spreading the virus. Ongoing questions from parents, protests by teacher unions, and concerns from civil society highlight the anxiety among citizens and the challenges of the task at hand.  Below, we look at the reason why some diarists support a return to school, as well as the fears and issues that remain.


Children are less at risk, let them learn

Some of our diarist suggested that children should go to school since they are less at risk. There seems to be some consensus that, if infected, children only show mild symptoms and recover. However, the World Health Organization has reportedly said that more research was needed to determine whether children can transmit the virus or not. The dilemma that policy makers face is neatly captured by Judy, in Newlands.

Children under 10 years old are very, very low risk when it comes to COVID 19, so it is extremely frustrating that they are only going back to school in July. I understand that schools are more than children though…teachers and admin staff and cleaners and grounds people will all be at risk if schools go back’ – Judy, Newlands.

Children are better in school than at home

For many diarists children are better off in school than continually at home. Lilly, in Woodstock, ‘…find[s] that in the area, particularly teenagers, [in] numerous times hanging around shops smoking their heads off instead of being in class. For Lilly, being in school will take the children away from such activities.

‘…in highly populated places kids are left to roam and play in the streets despite this serious epidemic meaning that they [parents] are comfortable with the fact that their kids are exposing so many other kids and people to the risk of being infected with the disease. So if parents are comfortable with their kids roaming the streets they should [also] be comfortable with them in a learning environment’ – Lwando, Imizamo Yethu.

Some diarists expressed their concerns that the lockdown had disadvantaged their children because they had no space to study in homes shared by many people. Those who could not afford data, for example, felt excluded from many opportunities to keep learning during the lockdown. 

…or children are better at home than in school

This was different for Natalie and Judy’s children in Newlands. Unlike those children seen by Lwando playing on the streets, Natalie’s are in what Judy describes as ‘privileged homes with access to a desk, electricity, internet, electronic devices and educated adults available to assist, they are able to continue learning.’ In this environment, the opportunities they can access look very different:

‘[Our children] are learning different skills (household tasks, baking, sewing), playing board games which will improve their math skills (monopoly, bridge, card games), reading a lot, their computer skills are improving from using Google classroom, they are learning to touch type, and they have kept up with practicing their musical instruments. So I am not worried about them academically. I enjoy spending more time with them and having a better understanding of how they are doing academically. But I am aware that not all households are in this same privileged position.’ – Natalie, Newlands

For Natalie, ‘children who aren’t vulnerable and are managing with studying from home, should stay at home at this time. This will mean less crowded classrooms…’

Given the two stark realities above, it is understandable why Ayanda, in Khayelitsha, says ‘[the] lockdown has impacted [children] badly because the implementation of e-learning was for the middle and upper classes leaving behind the working class to fend for themselves.

Concerns over school fees

Whilst the re-opening of schools might help to reduce the inequality in learning opportunities, it presented new challenges for those who were struggling to make ends meet. The country’s level four lockdown regulations allow specific industries to open, which means that only certain parents are able to return to work. For Noxy, in Delft, ‘another downside of this [reopening schools] is that their parents aren’t at work, how are they going to feed their families and to pay school fees at the same time?’ Despite the provision of social grants, Tiffany, in Salt River, argues that the increase was not good enough and needed to be revised:

‘Why should children (our future) be put in danger by being sent back to school when there are workers who still have not gone to work to feed their families because their jobs aren’t “essential” enough??  These same families who are not working will then in turn be expected to pay for their children’s travelling fees to school and also pay for their school fees. This doesn’t make sense and the R350 will not make it easier.’ – Tiffany, Salt River. 

Re-opening schools too risky for children’s health  

Despite the reports that children usually get mild symptoms, some diarists were adamant that reopening schools puts the children at risk of contracting the virus. I don’t think the children should go back to school, because the government is putting the children’s lives in danger’, writes Anonymous in Hangberg. Melody agrees, insisting that she would not comply with a call for children to return to school at present. ‘…I would not send my kids back at the moment and do not intend to send them whilst the infection rate is so high’.  

‘I think the idea of young kids (age 3-5) wearing face masks and social distancing at school, is crazy.’ – Natalie, Newlands

Several diarists believed that the Department should consider strict measures before reopening for all or for priority grades, 7 and 12 only. ‘The matriculants should go back because they need results for University’, says Sivuyile, in Khayelitsha.

Others placed emphasis on the cleaning of school facilities. China, in Khayelitsha, for example, stressed that ‘…classrooms need to be sanitized thoroughly in and other areas of school premises’. This was no small task, and she felt that ‘Parents must have a responsibility in assisting in all schools …unite, work collectively in combatting this deadly disease.

A key concern is that children will be unable observe social distance. Again, this is particularly challenging in under-resourced schools. Patsie for instance, writes, ‘in the township [where] schools have more than 40 children in each class, the spread of corona will be too much’. For Khaya, the problems stretch beyond the classroom, because ‘in public schools they share utilities, bathrooms and even text books.’ For some, the decision could probably work in some areas or schools, as Noxy, in Delft, supposes, ‘maybe children who go to private will able to cope with social distancing and all other necessary precautions.’  These issues would be lessened, diarists felt, if a limited number of grades returned to school. ForEsethu, the return of Grade 12 and 7 would be manageable ‘because they will have the whole school to themselves.


Teachers, parents and commuters will be affected

More broadly, diarists were concerned about protecting teachers and administration staff, and those who use public transport to get to and from work. Diarists are also concerned about multi-generational homes where there are old, and vulnerable people. Natalie in Newlands writes, ‘I also don’t fear children contracting the virus…But I am conscious that with multi-generational households, the return to school puts elderly grandparents at risk’.

Diarists were also concerned for commuters who will also come into contact with learners. In cities like Cape Town, some learners use public transport together with workers. Where they have school transport or omalume (private providers of school transport), it is usually crowded. Whilst there is a mandatory 70% loading capacity, this may not be viable in practice. Esethu from Khayelitsha, writes, ‘I believe that the government is gambling with the lives of our siblings because they will have to travel by public transport which on its own is a health risk.’ His concerns are echoed in the research on the spread of other infections such as tuberculosis, where users of minibus taxis were found to be most at risk. This mode of transport currently serves 69% of South Africa’s mostly poor commuters.

Cancel the year or face the inevitable?

Whilst all of our diarists recognised that a return to school raised important issues, they were ultimately divided, spanning a full spectrum of opinions. On the one end, were those who thought felt that a return was either actively positive or simply inevitable.

‘children must go back to school but I think they should be tested before entering the school, because they can’t stay at home forever.’ – Taila, Khayelitsha

One the other end of the spectrum were those who felt that the Department for Basic Education should write off the year and begin next year, concentrating on supporting those who were struggling to learn from home.

‘The infections are probably not going to peak until September, so maybe schools shouldn’t return until next year (unless they prove kids don’t transmit).  However much more needs to be done to support parents – financially (data, computers etc) and there needs to be a consistent policy.’ Audioman, Newlands.

Finally, some of our diarists ended on a more positive note: the hope that this crisis could open up the possibility for longer-term change. As Ishrene, from Marina da Gama, wrote, ‘This is an ideal time to revise curricula to make them more relevant and future oriented‘.

Questions:

How can the government manage people’s fear around shifts in lockdown restrictions?

What data should the government use to decide whether or not schools can open?

What role do parents play in influencing government decisions about the reopening of schools?

How can parents monitor the preparedness of, and adherence to, health and safety standards by schools?

Where might the need for catch-up amongst students create opportunities for longer-term curriculum change?

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