Start of school year delayed

By Liam Ngobeni for IOL

Public and private schools will only reopen officially on February 15.

Addressing the media on the start of the 2021 school year, Deputy Minister of Basic Education Reginah Mhaule said the calendar for schools had been revised to move back-to-school from January 13 to January 27, and was now being moved to February 15.

After consultations on Tuesday and Wednesday with the Council of Education Ministers, the Heads of Education Departments Committee, the national School Governing Body associations, teacher unions, learner formations, principals associations, as well as the national associations representing independent schools and learners with special education needs, it was decided to delay the opening for another fortnight.

While state schools and those which follow their calendar open on February 15, when exactly private schools open depends on their term calendars. However with many having already opened, they plan to move to online teaching.

“Given the pressure experienced by the health system in the past few weeks, occasioned by increased Covid-19 infections which has led to the second wave, the Council of Education Ministers in conjunction with the National Coronavirus Command Council and Cabinet, has taken the decision to delay the reopening of both public and private schools,” Mhaule said.

For public schools, and private schools which follow the four term calendar, the idea is that management teams will be back at school on Monday, January 25, with teachers on Monday, February 1 and learners back on Monday, February 15.

“Schools will use the time (before learners return) to finalise outstanding matters, regarding admissions, especially the unplaced learners in certain cases.”

Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa executive director Lebogang Montjane, said that as with last year, its schools would recommend hybrid teaching and learning, like it did last year during the first wave, with private schools remaining open, but remotely.

Mhaule told the media briefing that the Council of Education Ministers took the difficult decision, having considered all factors as backed up by research and statistics, regarding the current state of the health system.

The Department of Basic Education will be working closely with all nine Provincial Education Departments, to establish the true extent of the impact of the virus, resulting from the unfortunate demise of educators, workers and leaders in the sector, especially during the December and January holidays.

The basic education sector has also felt the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic during the marking of the 2020 National Senior Certificate examination scripts.

“Some of our markers have passed away, while others withdrew from marking due to fear and anxiety, but also because for some of them or their family members have tested positive.”

The department leadership will meet with provinces next week to check on the very latest regarding the state of readiness, and they will go to stakeholders for consultation on the details of the opening of schools for 2021 school year.

There has been mixed reaction. While many welcomed the decision as being in the best interests of everyone, trade union Solidarity and AfriForum condemned it.

“It is extremely short-sighted of the government to keep children out of schools for this (long) period,” said Johnell van Vollenhoven, media and liaison officer at Solidarity.

“Research from various sources has already shown that a school is, in most cases, the safest place where a child can find him- or herself during the pandemic. Not only do children receive much-needed education at school, but they are also supervised where safety measures are strictly enforced, and most children also receive their only meal for the day at school.

The consequences of this postponement are devastating for governing body appointments and other additional services that schools offer. As it is, teachers are already under pressure to catch up on backlogs that resulted from school days lost last year. It would be unreasonable to expect that further backlogs arising from the latest postponement of the school year would now also have to be addressed,” she said.

AfriForum said it plans on directing an urgent letter to the NCCC and the department to persuade them to allow schools that can prove that they adhere to Covid-19 regulations to reopen for learners on January 27, 2021, as planned.

According to Natasha Venter, Adviser for Educational Rights at AfriForum, this is in the interest of learners who have already lost a lot of school time in 2020.

“Many schools have already made the necessary arrangements to look after learners and staff’s health. It is, therefore, unfair for the Department of Education to disadvantage these schools because the department failed to intervene in ensuring that schools who were unable to implement the necessary measures are sufficiently equipped.”

“Schools have to adjust to the new normal that the virus brought about. Government’s procrastination with supplying the vaccinations and its refusal to allow other role-players to participate, as well as the possibility of even more waves of infections, mean that we will have to abide by safety regulations for a while longer – something that many schools already do successfully. This does not mean that children’s education, social development, and welfare should be neglected, however,” said Venter.

 

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