The department of basic education says it is planning a phased-in approach to reopening schools.
Although no dates are yet confirmed, with an official announcement by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga expected later in the week, the department’s director-general Hubert Mweli told Parliament’s education portfolio committee that school-return dates will be staggered.
Mweli, who briefed MPs in a video conference, said schools will be reopened while taking into consideration the best interest of learners’ safety.
He stressed that dates provided to MPs were merely tentative.
- Grade Seven and 12 learners could be able to return to school from as early as May 6;
- Grade six and 11 learners could return on May 20;
- Grade five and 10 learners could return by June 3;
- Grade four and nine leaders could return by June 17;
- Grade three and eight learners could return to school on July 1.
- Grade one and two learners could return on July 8; and
- Grade R learners would be allowed to return to school only on about July 15.
The department said Motshekga will provide clarity on when early childhood development centres, preschools and creches will be allowed to open.
The department estimates that five weeks of learning have been lost so far in the academic year, with cuts to future school holidays on the cards to make up for lost teaching time.
It said that when schools reopen, several physical-distancing and hygiene interventions will be put in place.
These include instructions that learners or teachers will not be allowed to hug, shake hands or have direct contact. Class sizes will be limited to 40 learners a classroom, and no more than two learners would be allowed to share a school desk.
These measures could pose a problem, given already overcrowded classrooms. The basic education department said more teachers would have to be hired to ensure restrictions to class sizes are adhered to.
Learners and teachers will be supplied with face masks, and temperature and symptom screening will take place before learners and teachers enter the school premises.
But MPs were sceptical, and expressed their concern that it is too early to reopen schools.
“It’s better to have life, than time. I do believe that this was done in a rush … There is the issue of social distancing — it is going to be a problem. I’m not asking, I am saying. We are exposing the country to serious risk. It’s doubtful whether we are doing the right thing,” said Democratic Alliance National Council of Provinces (NCOP) delegate Mbulelo Bara.
ANC NCOP delegate Maurencia Gillion asked whether schools in provinces with high Covid-19 infection rates should be allowed to open at all.
“The Western Cape is the epicentre for Covid-19 [in South Africa]. Is there reassurance that the Western Cape is ready for schools to open? We are concerned about the safety of all communities, but the inequalities in this province have now come to the fore,” she said.
Deputy Basic Education Minister Makgabo Mhaule said the dates for children to return to school are expected to change. “We are not presenting a cast in stone plan here today,” she said.
She added: “We were told by the Cabinet’s social cluster that that date of May 6 is unrealistic. But principals and chairpersons of school governing bodies will be reporting on [May 4]. They will be reporting to look at the things that will be needed when teachers come. We must not compromise lives. Lives are more important than an academic year.”
The Mail & Guardian will publish an analysis of the practicalities of opening schools in due course.