News / South Africa / Education
Reopening schools to full capacity in Gauteng could spell disaster for the already stretched healthcare system, says a doctor. This as concerned parents, unions and school organisations debate the risks and benefits of allowing thousands of pupils to return to classrooms at full capacity next month.
One of the most dangers for general practitioner Dr Daniel Israel is the difficulty teachers have in policing children’s behaviour to such actions as wearing a mask, washing hands and keeping social distance.
“Teenagers tend to be rebellious and don’t always think of the consequences,” said Israel
From 6 July, schools grades R to 11 as well as special schools are supposed to open fully, as announced by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga.
A school may be permitted to deviate from the phased return to school in respect of specific grades or dates, provided that such school complies with the minimum health, safety and social distancing measures and requirements on Covid-19.
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Gillian Shannon* is a mother to two children in a northern Johannesburg private primary school. Parenting under lockdown has been trying for the family. Though they are not constrained by financial difficulties, this has not meant that remote learning is easy for the children.
Being a working parent can be difficult when you’re working from home and you have to manage online learning for two small children, she said, adding despite this, the thought of sending her children to school when Gauteng was experiencing the third wave of Covid-19 is unthinkable.
“Online learning is far from ideal and not half as effective as learning within a classroom environment. But there’s no such thing as ideal at the moment and we have to do as best as we know how to as parents. Covid stats in Gauteng are absolutely frightening and our healthcare system is buckling. A doctor referred to the situation as a catastrophic earlier today. We are living in unprecedented times and to send children to school in the eye of the storm feels counterintuitive.”
The Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa, (Isasa) fully supported schools returning to full capacity next month, but also suggests schools and government take a flexible approach to allay concerns.
Isasa executive director Lebogang Montjane argued schools were the best place for pupils to be and in some instances, the safest.
“What is happening is that we do know it is good for children to be in school. And the greatest concern that we presently have is that if children are not in school, they are more vulnerable in many ways. It really is important that we bring children to schools.
“I think we commend the Department of Health on their rollout of vaccinating staff at schools. That will enable a more safe reopening of schools. It is important to also realise that it’s about the mitigation of risks, it’s not the avoidance of risks.”
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Because Isasa’s independent schools have been able to effectively go on remote learning, many of its Gauteng schools are now online entirely.
Only the pre-primary schools and the Grade 0’s are at school at this time.
But come next month, Montjane said, it would be wise for schools to allow parents who have added risk factors such comorbidities to keep their children at home, especially in Gauteng.
“The problem is this, if we have a situation for example where children are not at school but parents are still at work, who looks after the children? Also, it makes children a lot more vulnerable. They are also not safe. They are vulnerable to being taken advantage of them in many different ways.”
The Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (Fedsas) also supports a hybrid approach. This is according to its chairperson, Jaco Deacon.
“We do not believe that a blanket approach is the best, but that decisions must be made on the best available data in an area. So the deviated approach allows for schools that can operate to operate and those under different circumstances to remain either closed or on a rotation.
“We still believe that the structured school environment is better for the learners as protocols are enforced – vaccinations in the education sector will also make it a safer workplace.”
According to Jackie Carroll, managing director (MD) of tech company Optimi Workplace, South African schools and households are struggling significantly with the demands of online learning.
While it is clear how technology has been a saving grace for many learners during the Covid-19 pandemic in South Africa, the reality is that technology-led learning still has a long way to go in the country.
Despite mobile networks being under pressure for years to lower data costs, internet access remains an expensive luxury for the majority of South Africans.
“When you consider that it can still cost R100 for just 1GB, this is a serious stumbling block. The planned auctioning off of radio spectrum by the government is expected to help lower data prices over the long term. But with that matter held up currently by court challenges, the high costs of data persist without any end in sight. This is a major barrier at a time when a lot of learning in our schools is still happening from homes.”