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Going back to school is a Catch-22

Return to school and risk getting sick and struggling to matriculate, or drop out — this is the decision that learners who spoke to the Mail & Guardian this week are grappling with.

Last week, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said the department was planning a phased-in return to schools, with grade seven and 12 learners tentatively going back to school on June 1. This is on condition that schools meet a series of Covid-19 health and safety standards, with the health department also needing to approve the process.

All these plans are still subject to approval by the Cabinet.

Motshekga said grade 12 learners have to go back to school to write their final exams, with the papers already set.

But some learners who spoke to the M&G this week said they are contemplating dropping out and repeating the grade. Others have already taken the decision to quit. These learners, like Onalerona Monareng from the North West and Amanda Watson from KwaZulu-Natal, believe they are better off losing the academic year than falling sick from Covid-19.

“I am not prepared to risk my life,” says Monareng. She says it is going to be difficult to know who has or does not have the virus in the scholar transport and even at school.

The department has said that when learners and teachers return to school, they will be screened and those that show symptoms of the virus will be encouraged to self-quarantine.

However, 17-year-old Monareng says she has already told her parents that she will go back to school only when she feels it is safe to do so. Her parents, she says, agree that right now the risk is too high. “I am not going back to school. I have made up my mind. I am going back to school next year or when the virus is not as bad as it is right now,” she says

Watson is hopeful that at least by next year scientists would have found a cure for the virus and says it might be safer to return to school. Right now the fear of catching the virus at school is discouraging her from wanting to go back. “I am not going back. It is better to lose the academic year than to lose a life. I would rather repeat the grade next year,” she says. Like Monareng, she says her parents support her decision.

Kganya Shupeng is scared to go back to school and she has discussed this fear with her mother.

But the 17-year-old from the Northern Cape says although her mother understands her fears, she believes that with the coronavirus the risk is everywhere. “She feels it is a risk if you are travelling to the mall to get food, so just as it is a risk to do that, it is also a risk to go to school. She feels it is something that needs to be done, that I must go back to school and get ready for the final exams,” Shupeng says.

The Western Cape is the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak. As of this week, the province had more than 3000 positive cases of the more than 7000 in the country.

These statistics are worrying to Cingokuhle Wotsetse from Kuilsrivier. The 19-year-old says he is even more worried because he has observed that people have not been adhering to the lockdown regulations and this makes him feel unsafe. 

But, even with all his anxieties, he is ready to go back to school. “I am going to risk it and go back to school,” he says.

“My parents would be happy if I did not because they are thinking of my safety, but I am thinking of my future and that I need to move to the next level of my life. Therefore, I cannot afford to repeat a year.”

Wotsetse and Fhulu Mutengwe from Limpopo say if schools provide personal protective equipment, sanitisers and are fumigated then there is no reason why they should not open.

In its presentation to Parliament’s portfolio committee last week, the department of basic education said classrooms will be sanitised before the start of school day, learners will receive their hand sanitiser before entering the classroom, and wearing masks will be compulsory throughout the school day.

Provincial education departments are in the process of procuring personal protective equipment, sanitisers, soap, masks and thermometers. However, teacher unions have expressed reservations about whether provinces will deliver these before schools are opened.

The department has also said that physical distancing will be enforced and that no hugging, shaking hands or direct contact will be allowed.

Mutengwe says learners are not as disciplined as older people and will want to hug and do the usual things that they are used to, and so she foresees that it will be difficult to maintain social distancing.

But even with those concerns, she wants to go back to class. Mutengwe is repeating grade 12. She went back to school because she wanted to obtain better marks than she did last year. “So this whole thing of not going back to school anytime soon — it is stressing me out,” she says.

According to the plans by the department presented in Parliament, grade 12 learners will still write preliminary examinations in September, and the dates of the final exams will be amended accordingly.

Viwe Jawe from KwaZulu-Natal believes that “the damage has already been done” this year and that Motshekga must just scrap the academic year. He says he has tried to study on his own but it has been difficult without the help of teachers. His problem has been compounded by the fact that it is noisy where he stays, so it is difficult to study in peace.

“As you can hear for yourself we are battling to hear each other because of the noise,” he says during the telephonic interview.

Jawe says there are learners who cannot study under pressure and if they do go back to school in June these learners will find themselves under immense pressure as there is a lot of ground that still needs to be covered in the curriculum.

Indibabale Lesoma from Gauteng says even though her teachers have been sending tasks on WhatsApp it has been difficult to study on her own. “There is just a lack of motivation to study when you are not at school,” she says.

All the learners who spoke to the M&G say they had been studying at home but do not have faith that they will do as well as they would have had they been taught by teachers.

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

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