Pupils wearing protective face masks on the first day back to school. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi/African News Agency (ANA)
Pupils wearing protective face masks on the first day back to school. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi/African News Agency (ANA)

Plan for all primary school pupils to return sparks debate

By Sakhiseni Nxumalo, Zodidi Dano Time of article published Apr 21, 2021

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DURBAN - THE Department of Basic Education’s announcement that it is in talks about primary school pupils possibly resuming full-time attendance has sparked debate about the health risk to children and teachers as opposed to the loss of valuable teaching time.

While some schools have been allowed to have 100% attendance after they made submissions to the department, others, particularly disadvantaged schools, still have pupils attending on a rotational basis.

The rotational model, where children attend school only a few days a week, was implemented to ensure that physical distancing takes place in schools in line with Covid-19 regulations. There have been concerns that the model was not working and was to the detriment of pupils.

Department spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga has confirmed that there was a meeting held on Monday to discuss the issue.

“Since the matter was discussed, the next thing for us is to put together a proposal. From there, we will consult with the teachers’ unions, school governing bodies as well as other stakeholders. But we are not there yet,” he said.

National Teachers Union (Natu) general secretary Cynthia Barnes said that if the plan was approved it would be risking the lives of both teachers and parents.

The department’s main reason to opt for the full return of primary pupils was that they were at low risk of being infected, she said.

“We do understand when they say that the younger children may not be at risk … however, they might spread the virus to older people at home and teachers,” she stressed.

She said the current curriculum was set in a manner that accommodated pupils regardless of how many days they attended school.

“We do not understand what the main reason is behind this proposal as we believe that this simply puts the lives of teachers and parents at risk. The department must provide us with details on how they will ensure the safety of teachers,” she said.

Barnes said there was a shortage of teachers at schools and many of them were at home because they were regarded as being at risk and had comorbidities.

She said there were several vacant posts for teachers who had died from Covid-19 and these have yet to be filled.

“This is going to be a disaster. Pupils would be floating around in school not doing anything. This means there would also be many children who are not being monitored, and they would find themselves not complying with social distancing or even wearing a mask.”

The National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of SA (Naptosa) chief executive in KwaZulu-Natal, Thirona Moodley, said they had been told of the department’s plan.

However, she said, it needed to provide them with all the logistics of the plan that would be put in place to ensure the safety of pupils and teachers.

“Before we state our views on the matter, we believe that we still need to engage with the department in detail on how this will be managed and supervised,” she said.

Anthea Cereseto, chief executive of the Governing Body Foundation, said the department had a tough decision to make. She said that since Covid-19 “looked like it was here to stay”, it would not be possible to keep children away from school forever. She said that sending children to school would not necessarily expose them to the virus.

“Children are already mixing with other children in society. This means they are already exposing themselves and their parents to the virus. The department needs to ensure it takes all measures into consideration … this includes the safety of teachers and parents,” said Cereseto.

If the department comes out with a proper proposal on how they would ensure safety measures, children should be allowed back to school as soon as possible, she said.

“Children at a very young age have brains that quickly absorb information and knowledge. If we lose out on this learning time, it’s going to take longer for the children to be able to grasp information in the future.”

Dr Felicity Coughlan, a director at the Independent Institute of Education, said: “If you are only at school three days out of five, or every second week, there is no consistency in the learning process.”

Stellenbosch University Professor Michael le Cordeur said: “While we cannot deny the negative impact on children’s education, they will only be vaccinated in 2022, which puts them and their teachers at risk,” he said.

Le Cordeur said the impact of the pandemic on academics differed from school to school and from society to society.

“Those in private schools have least been affected, if at all, but those in poor communities have fallen far behind which emphasises the inequalities in the education system.”

However, he said it was always possible for teachers to make up the time lost because of the pandemic.

“Children are very clever. And many teachers have learnt how to teach under adversity.”


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