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Economists should really look wider before speaking about schools

COMMENT

Recently a vocal group of economists have argued that closing schools is a huge mistake and that teachers who oppose opening schools are selfishly undermining our society’s response to the pandemic and will increase inequality.

Our country is faced with a very complex and uncertain situation, so there are many risks and unintended harms that no one person can anticipate. In the face of this, policymaking needs to take seriously the views of all people in our country, not just a small group of economists.

So what is their argument, and how do the views and experiences of teachers, caregivers and children square with this argument?

Schools should be open to feed hungry children

Economists point to the recent National Income Dynamics Study survey, which shows that child hunger has more than doubled since the start of lockdown. But they omit that the survey also shows that adults are experiencing higher levels of hunger than children as they give up food to shield their families. Feeding schemes cannot just target children; they must provide food for the whole family.

Feeding need not be dependent on schools remaining open — in fact, schools are more amenable to being used as sites for feeding children and families without the full staff complement. In addition, many children live far from their schools — recently unemployed families won’t be able to afford their children’s commute to schools to get a meal each day. Instead of assuming they know what is best for impoverished schools and communities, economists need to ask them what will work and what won’t.

You cannot reopen the economy without reopening schools

Opening schools safely, following national guidelines, does not enable all children to be at school for the normal school day. Even fee-collecting public schools have only had enough resources for children to attend on alternate days or weeks. Using schools for childcare during the pandemic has not been easy or necessarily effective.

But, we suspect that wealthier families, who tend to live in smaller units, rely more on schools for childcare needs. Poorer families tend to live in larger multigenerational units who often provide childcare during the holidays and are likely doing so now. Indeed, “High, and massively increased, unemployment in lower-income households means that childcare is usually available,” Kate Alexander and Narnia Bohler-Muller point out, reflecting on a survey by the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC). 

This difference in household composition might explain why two-thirds of impoverished adults in the HSRC/UJ survey want schools to stay closed, compared with just 41% of adults earning more than R20 000 per month.

School closures will increase inequality

Economists argue that, “Teachers will not be able to complete the curriculum, leaving many gaps in children’s education. Poorer learners and schools are least able to catch up. International research shows that such learning losses could have lasting implications, even stretching into the labour market and affecting lifetime earnings.”

This argument assumes that school closure means an end to learning. There has been very little systematic discussion or delivery of home-based and community-based support for learning, through radio, television and print materials. At the same time, there has been little recognition or support for teachers who have continued to provide care and support during school closures, teaching via WhatsApp, social media and through community structures, nor for the nongovernmental organisations that have continued to support learning at home.

The argument also assumes that schools are able to provide effective teaching and learning despite long-term underfunding and the additional burdens the pandemic has brought. Many historically black schools do not have enough teachers or classrooms, lack toilets and running water, and are forced to teach an alienating curriculum in an unfamiliar language with insufficient learning materials. They are also now filled with anxious and depressed learners and teachers who have not received any psychosocial support from the state. 

A grade 12 teacher shared: “We spend two hours at school just sanitising. There’s no time for lesson planning, and we are exhausted at the end of the day policing learners, shouting through masks. We have no staff room or quiet place to do our planning/admin — all spaces are used at all times.”

In current conditions learners are struggling to learn and teachers are struggling to teach. It is mostly wealthier children at private and fee-collecting schools, who have adequate social, economic and psychological support systems, who will benefit from schools staying open. We believe that opening schools without addressing an unfair and unequal education system that disadvantages poor, working class and rural children will increase inequality.

Yet, the very economists who claim that schools must stay open to enable learning have, for years, argued that the education budget was more than sufficient, and contributed to policies that starved our public schools of necessary resources. In doing so, their research may well have contributed to increasing educational inequality in this country.

Teachers and learners are more at risk from Covid-19 in their communities than at school

These economists argue that teachers are as likely to get infected in their community as at school. Testing numbers have declined because of insufficient testing kits and capacity, whereas schools only reopened temporarily to selected grades — this means there is a lot of uncertainty about the true infection rates at school.

The economists also say that research has shown that children don’t transmit the virus, and they won’t infect elderly family members living with them, but they ignore newer research which finds that children above the age of 10 transmit the virus as much as adults do. More than half of elderly persons live in multigenerational households, and many children rely primarily on their grandmothers. The authors of the HSRC/UJ survey state: “We are not persuaded that government policy on [opening] schools will have a minimal impact on deaths, or that keeping children at school will be good for the economy”.

One teacher told us: “I have students in my class that are nervous wrecks because they are pushed into overcrowded taxis with other students and taxi drivers. And as teachers we cannot even comfort these students. Students are scared they are taking Covid back to their vulnerable family members.”

Medical experts and advisors say returning to school is in children’s best interests

Economists point to statements by paediatricians claiming that schools offer places of safety for impoverished black children. But these paediatricians do not work on school violence in our country. And they make two unfounded assumptions: that all schools are safe places and that poor black homes are unsafe places.

Economists also point to evidence from other countries that “school closures and natural disasters raise levels of substance abuse, depression, fear, loneliness, domestic violence and child abuse”. A recent HSRC survey of mental health during the pandemic supports this view. But it does not imply the opposite: that going back to school during a pandemic will reduce levels of substance abuse, violence or psychological distress.

Teachers are reporting to us repeatedly the severe fear and anxiety of working at schools during this time. “It’s hell every day” is what one teacher said to describe her experience of going back to school. Another teacher pleaded: “Please remember that there is both physical health and mental health. Too much stress is just as dangerous as the virus.” Yet little attention has been paid to the potentially increased risk of violence at schools as a consequence of the pandemic’s effects on mental health.

White male economists’ or black female teachers’ voices?

Statements that imply that teachers are lazy and selfish because they voice concerns about schools reopening are a blunt ideological attack on teachers, who are overwhelmingly black women. For years, a group of mostly white male economists have attacked teachers and their unions as incompetent, ignorant and idle without seeking to understand the disproportionate burdens that they face.

Black women make up the majority of all teachers in South Africa, and teach predominantly in historically black schools, which are those most likely to lack infrastructure and resources for sanitising and social distancing. We also know that the majority of black women are disproportionately affected by poor health and healthcare access, economic insecurity and high psychosocial care obligations. Any decisions about schools inordinately affects this group of people.

Policymaking with the people, not against the people

Medical scientists have recently critiqued the government’s decision to close schools as capitulating to unions instead of being informed by scientific experts. But this is a flawed position. Although the views of medical experts are important, we also need to understand the psychosocial and pedagogical dynamics of the pandemic, and for this we need the insights of education researchers and social scientists. Second, the positional knowledge of caregivers, children and teachers is invaluable in a context of high uncertainty and complexity. And third, democratic policymaking implies that the lay public must play a role. Policy cannot be shaped solely by those with power.

Anti-teacher rhetoric creates a chasm instead of building a bridge between decision-makers and those directly affected by the decisions. Unilateral calls for schools to remain open, without consultation and acknowledgement of peoples’ experiences and fears, builds resentment, breaking the social compact that is so vital for a flourishing democracy.

The views of those adults (a majority of those earning under R20000 a month) opposed to the opening of schools should not be ignored. This section of society represents the vast majority of people in the country, whereas those who earn above R20 000 a month represent a small minority. Economists cannot claim to be pro-poor and then recommend policies that poor people reject. Economists should be calling for Parliament to fully reopen. The people require their representatives to be in office where they can be accessed to hear and put forward their objections for discussion and debate.

In an open letter to Angie Motshekga, a teacher wrote: “You want to control us from your homes, your offices which are empty; from your laptops, your social media. You want us to listen to you while you dictate to us what is good for us. Have you considered asking us, engaging us? Have you actually sat down with teachers? Actual teachers; not the representatives of teachers. Especially in underprivileged environments.”

Teachers, learners and caregivers are drawing our attention to the unacceptable and deeply unequal conditions they have endured amidst a brutal austerity programme enacted by the government for years. Instead of positioning them as the enemy, it is time to recognise that they are human beings who have valuable knowledge.

None of us alone has the answers to the problems we face. It is only together that we can work out how to move forward. In this task, let us begin with the ideas and the imaginations of those who are most important to schools: teachers, learners and communities.

As one teacher wrote: “When I asked my grade 12s how they would start fixing the pandemic, they answered:

– Build bigger houses for the poor and needy, everyone should have proper housing;

– Improve quality of our schools in our communities so we don’t travel so far for schooling;

– Improve public transport to reduce spread;

– Distribute food and basic necessities using the army so people don’t have to go work for food; and

– Base decisions about how to deal with the pandemic on scientific research, and if it is not conclusive, rather be safe than sorry.

This article, by the C19 People’s Coalition and its Education Working Group, was first published on their website

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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