Catch-2020: Schools at risk, open or closed

The past few weeks since schools reopened, after being closed to prevent the spread for the coronavirus, have seen teachers, parents and learners protest for schools to remain closed. Their posters read “Childrens’ lives matter”, “We are not collateral damage”, “We can’t teach from our graves” and “#TeachersLivesMatter”. Many have joined the debate on social media platforms over whether the academic year should continue or not. 

Calculating the risks either way is not easy. The benefits or costs of losing a school year are hard to calculate accurately. One would have to consider fixed costs such as teacher salaries, learning material and building maintenance. At the same time a range of legacy costs would be incurred into the foreseeable future. 

It might be true that if one child were to lose an academic year, it would not mean that much in the overall course of their lives. But, when we consider the possibility of all children in a particular grade or age cohort losing an academic year, huge implications arise for the education system.

This can be illustrated by looking at the entry and exit grades. About 1.2-million learners have been entering grade 1 each year since 2016. If the 2020 academic year is not completed, this year’s 1.2-million learners will return to grade 1 in 2021. But a new batch of 1.2-million learners would be starting grade 1 in 2021, doubling the numbers of learners. 

At the beginning of 2020, some schools struggled to accommodate the incoming cohort of grades 1 and 8 learners. Steve Mabona, spokesperson for the Gauteng education department, said in January this year: “Unfortunately we can only accommodate a certain number of learners at our schools and as such call upon parents to accept placement offers as these are the only spaces available at some schools.” 


At the exit level, if the grade 12s do not matriculate, universities will not have a similar intake for 2021 as they would normally have. 

These backlogs would take time to work themselves out of the system. 

Perhaps if we were certain that January 2021 would arrive with a coronavirus vaccine in sufficient quantities to ensure that we could commence the 2021 academic year with no hitches, losing one year could be an option. But we do not know when or if a vaccine will be found. 

Moreover, it is unlikely that calls to stop the reopening of schools would, if entertained, apply to all learners in the system. Schools and learners with sufficient resources have been able to continue learning remotely and return to the classroom as soon as it was possible. These learners are unlikely to repeat their academic year. 

Jaime Saavedra, who leads Education Global Practice at the World Bank, outlined in a recent blog the lesson we had not learned about inequality. He noted that “before the pandemic, school was not yet the equalising factor that allows everyone to have a chance in life”, with learning being dependent on socioeconomic background. Digital access, a crucial factor in the ability to continue learning during lockdown, is proving to enhance the socioeconomic background dependency effect, according to Saavedra, who said “the inequities have expanded dramatically”. 

The potential costs related to losing an academic year, will not be equally borne by all in the school system. The incalculable costs will moreover be paid by those who can least afford it. It is not fair that the most vulnerable have to place their bodies on the line to risk being overcome by the virus before being overcome by poverty. 

The subtitle of the current macroeconomic strategic plan of South Africa reads: “Our future — make it work.” Fundamentally this explains simply what ubuntu means in sociological terms; we are, what we are. We are in this together; no matter how unequal we are in this togetherness, we continue to inhabit the same spaces and our lives have consequences for the lives of others — good or bad. 

Perhaps we need to be debating how we ensure that this school year (and subsequent years) can be completed in the safest — and thus the most equalising — manner possible. Perhaps the debate and slogans need to be geared towards considering how we, as a collective of responsible citizens, can achieve the best for ourselves and others. In other words, how we can make it work. If our education system fails to produce the best, whether the coronavirus is ultimately defeated or not, each South African is somehow affected by the absence of skills. 

Let us band together to realise the rights we were given by taking the responsibility to ensure that each learner can benefit, no matter what we need to do to ensure that they and their teachers are safe, while completing the 2020 academic year. The other option is decidedly untenable.

Zahraa McDonald is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Johannesburg

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Zahraa McDonald
Zahraa McDonald is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Johannesburg

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