Plan in place to recover ‘lost’ school days

With schools closing two days before and opening eight days after the scheduled Easter break, provincial departments of education have cancelled the autumn matric camps and have instead encouraged learners to study on their own.

Heads of departments, teacher unions and the director general of the department of basic education Mathanzima Mweli met on Tuesday to discuss, among other things, what the implications of losing 10 days of the school calendar will mean and what is required to ensure the curriculum is completed.

This comes after President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on

Sunday measures to combat the spread of Covid-19, including the school closure.

Although the physical effects of Covid-19 on children of school-going age appear to be less severe than on adults, the United Nations Children’s Fund says they are vectors of the disease and could bring infections into their homes, which is a problem when there are people at home who are vulnerable, such as those with respiratory and heart diseases, weak immune systems from chemotherapy and HIV, obesity and diabetes.

The matric camps can draw about 300 learners, which would go against Ramaphosa’s call for a ban on gatherings of 100 or more people.

Teacher union leaders, who participated in Tuesday’s meeting, said at least one province wanted to go ahead with the camps because large numbers of learners did not attend them. But the province was cautioned that going against the president’s word is “tantamount to treason”, a union leader said, and that if anyone at a camp tested positive with the virus the blame would be laid squarely on the government.

The spokesperson for the basic education department, Elijah Mhlanga, said Mweli had assured him that all provinces had cancelled their autumn camps.

The committee responsible for school calendars met on Thursday to finalise the revision, which will be gazetted soon.

Initially schools were supposed to have closed on March 20 and open on March 31. But after Ramaphosa’s announcement, schools closed on March 18 and will open on April 14. This means that 10 days of the school year have been lost. But, with the revised school calendar, the 10 days will be recovered by shortening the June and September holidays.

Mhlanga says schools will close on June 12 and open on June 30 instead of July 7, and the September holidays will be shortened by three days.

“There is not much of a crisis, especially if we are able to recover those days,” said Mhlanga.

The president of the National Teachers Union, Allen Thompson, said the union did not agree with the shortening of school holidays and would instead have preferred adding an hour or so to the school day.

The meeting also agreed on a catch-up plan. Unlike the learners, teachers remained at school until Friday so that they could rework their time-table and revise their plans to ensure that they will be able to complete the curriculum.

“Because you have lost time, you now need to extend your teaching hours. It now means that from 14 April you now need to teach for longer hours, it also means that where there were free periods you now fill them up,” said Mhlanga.

The executive director of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa, Basil Manuel, said these were “unusual circumstances” and teachers would be expected to make sacrifices in different ways.

“This will mean doing something extra and different to what you did before,” he said. “And I’m confident that people will rise to the occasion.”

But Manuel and Thompson have raised concerns that there is no guarantee that the virus would have ceased to exist in April, and that it was possible that schools would not open on April 14.

The union leaders said even though the meeting did not decide what will happen if the schools do not open as scheduled, there would be weekly meetings with Mweli that would read the mood of the virus and plans would be adjusted.

Thompson said the reality was that most classrooms are overcrowded, with some having as many as 80 learners in a class, and it would not be sensible to expect them to return to school under such conditions in the time of Covid-19.

He added that they were expecting provincial education departments and the national basic education department to work on mechanisms that will ensure learners are not at great risk of infection when they return to school.

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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