Johannesburg - The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) says the government's decision to close public schools from Monday until late August will increase inequality since students from poor households will have no other options to continue learning, making them fall further behind those from wealthier families.
In a national address broadcast live on television on Thursday night, President Cyril Ramaphosa said cabinet had decided to close public schools for all by essential grades from July 27 until August 24 to prevent them from becoming sites of aggressive Covid-19 transmissions as infections peak.
"It was difficult to find consensus on the best approach... taking into account the views, Cabinet has decided today that all public schools should take a break for the next four weeks," he said.
In response, the SAHRC said effectively by August 24 over 10 million South African children, depending on the grade they were in, would have lost over 50 percent or 100 scheduled school days as a result of closures in response to the coronavirus.
"The Commission’s view on the opening of schools is guided by the evidence provided by a range of researchers that point to the devastating consequences of children not being at school," it said, listing among them increases in hunger and malnutrition. For many poor children, the meal they get at school constitutes a high percentage of total food they receive daily.
Ramaphosa did say in his speech that the the national school nutrition programme would continue to operate so that all learners or their parents could collect food directly from schools.
The rights commission said stopping learners from going to school also increased the risk of child abuse and mental health breakdowns with rising rates of depression and anxiety, and that children were also at high risk of being left home alone when their caregivers went to work.
"(It also) increases in inequality since poorer learners and schools are least able to continue learning. Poorer children regress significantly in terms of reading and maths skills during extended absence from school," the SAHRC added.
The Democratic Alliance party has also slammed the government's move, saying it had caved in to teachers' unions who have been demanding school schools citing the risk of Covid-19 infections.
"President Ramaphosa has bent the knee to all-powerful teachers’ unions ... who do not have the best interests of learners at heart ... President Ramaphosa is behaving like a 'spectator president', taking instructions from whichever powerful interest group threatens him more," DA leader John Steenhuisen said.