Learners in Grade R, 6 and 11 returned to school on Monday as part of the government’s phased-in approach to the reopening of schools. These learners now join the Grade 7 and 12 learners who went back to school on 1 June.

The Grade 1 learners at Hermanus Primary, who went back to school on Monday, are divided into groups that rotate in order to keep classes at 50% capacity. To improve their concentration, the children were given a break every half an hour to stretch or dance. PHOTO: Taylum Meyer

This amendment to the gazetted directions for the reopening of schools, which would also have seen ECD, Grade 1, 2, 3 and 10 learners return to their classes on 6 July, was again announced at the last minute by the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, at a press briefing held on Sunday afternoon.

In another U-turn, it was decided that only Grade 6 and 11 learners had to return to school this week. Schools that were ready to receive their Grade R learners could also go ahead as planned, the Minister said, adding that not all schools were at the same level of readiness and had until the end of the month to accommodate their Grade Rs.

Motshekga said her decision had been informed by the feedback and advice received from scientists, medical experts and various stakeholders, including school principals, school governing bodies, national teachers’ organisations and the Council of Education Ministers.

“We will adjust the reopening phases based on the risk-adjusted strategy, which is a considered attempt to balance our approach to school reopening taking into account all factors that affect the work we do. We are guided in this by an observation of the rising numbers of community transmissions throughout the country,” said Motshekga.

According to the Western Cape Education Department, “We welcome the differentiated approach to phasing in grades that has been provided for, and the ability for schools to adopt a slightly slower phasing in approach, should they need to do so.” However, several schools in the Western Cape, including the Overberg, have welcomed back learners in Grades 1, 2, 3 and 10 as planned. Bronagh Hammond of the WCED confirmed that those schools “which are ready and have made all the necessary preparations, may continue to receive grades other than those specified. At all times, the required safety protocols must continue to be followed, regardless of the number of grades present at school.”

To date, 2 740 teachers and 1 260 pupils in the country have contracted Covid-19 since schools started to reopen on 1 June. Motshekga said this constitutes a small percentage of people in the schooling system. “The 2 740 teachers out of 440 000 is equivalent to less than 1%,” she said, adding that it is “unfortunate” that 11 of those infected teachers and four non-teaching staff members had died. Three learners who reportedly had serious comorbidities, have also lost their lives. The 1 260 infections among pupils, she said, came to less than 0.1% of pupils in the country.

Motshekga also confirmed that, to date, 968 out of a total of more than 25 000 schools nationwide have had to close temporarily due to infection. “That means that only about 4% of schools have been affected and they were not closed for long periods. The average duration of the deep cleaning and decontamination of schools is three days,” she said, emphasising that this was preferable to the blanket closure of all schools for a longer period. “This would come at an unacceptable cost of lost learning and school feeding for an entire generation of children, with a consequent worsening of social and economic inequalities for years to come.”

However, the Minister admitted that the challenges will become greater as more grades return to school, especially with respect to social distancing, timetabling and classroom management. Rotating classes was one solution, but would lead to more teaching days lost. She said new “innovative approaches” needed to be adopted by schools, as it was in the overall best interests of learners to be back in school.

The third cohort of pupils is expected to return to school on 3 August. Parents who choose not to send their children back to school, she added, must apply to the provincial education department – and not the schools – to register for home schooling.

Regarding ECD (Early Childhood Development) centres, the Minister said the pre-Grade Rs would have to wait a little longer, as ECD falls under the Department of Social Development and not the Department of Basic Education. However, on Monday the Gauteng High Court ruled in favour of private ECD centres reopening immediately. The case had been brought by trade union Solidarity’s Occupational Guild for Social Workers and their School Support Centre (SCC) against the Department of Social Development.

“We are delighted with the ruling. It means thousands of parents will be able to place their children in the care of their competent teachers again for the stimulation and learning that children so desperately need,” said Marisa Engelbrecht, sector head of the Solidarity Occupational Guild for Social Workers. “What is even more reassuring, is that these children will now be in a safe environment again and that those dependent on feeding schemes will once again be able to learn and develop optimally with food in their stomachs.”

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