3 754 KZN schools close down for election week

Measure may imperil pupils’ chances of obtaining matric exemptions, SGBs association warns. | FILE

Measure may imperil pupils’ chances of obtaining matric exemptions, SGBs association warns. | FILE

Published May 27, 2024


Durban — Thousands of children across the province will lose out on a week of schooling from Monday after the KwaZulu-Natal Education Department decided to close schools that have been earmarked as voting stations.

Several organisations, including the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC), have questioned this decision, saying it would have a major impact on learning and teaching, especially when mid-year exams were under way or about to start.

The IEC’s provincial communications spokesperson, Thabani Ngwira, confirmed that 3 754 schools and ECD centres would be used as polling stations, but not for the entire week.

He said they would only be set up on the morning of elections and then ballot counting would start at 9pm that evening.

“They have never had to close schools for the whole week because we only use a section of the school.

“It can be one class or two different classes. But that will be on election day because that’s when we expect a high number of people.

“So counting takes place from 9pm when the voting station closes and it wouldn’t go (on longer than) the next day or the next two days. It has never happened.”

Ngwira said bulk material such as ballot boxes and ballot booths could be delivered a day before elections, but “sensitive material” such as ballot papers and ink arrived on the actual day.

“But you wouldn’t have to close the whole school to deliver bulk material.

“We only need one day, which is a public holiday,” he said.

On Friday, the education department sent out a circular in which it said that the IEC may require access to identified schools before and after the election date and that staff of the affected schools may have to “hand over the schools” to the IEC for the week so that it didn’t interfere with the IEC process, and to ensure the safety and well-being of pupils.

“It is advisable that learners of the affected schools stay at home until the general elections are over, and principals are requested to communicate this information to all relevant stakeholders, including parents/guardians.

“It is noted that the affected schools may lose learning and teaching time between May 27 and May 31.

“It is in that regard that the principals of affected schools should ensure that learning-recovery programmes are in place to assist learners to catch up after the elections,” the circular read.

“It’s totally unacceptable,” said Matakanye Matakanya, the general secretary of the National Association of School Governing Bodies.

He urged parents not to just accept the school closures as their children would pay the price.

“There is a serious consequence in the sense that now children are going to lose and miss (out) for the whole week as compared to other children. And the possibility is that those children at the end of the term are going to fail and that will impact particularly the Grade 12s because they are going to use those reports for applying to universities,” he said.

Vee Gani from the KZN Parents Association said it made sense to only close the smaller schools where voting would take place and not the bigger ones, but in future the IEC should consider using other buildings such as community halls so that this problem is not repeated.

“Where schools are very small, and by having the elections and (where) the preparation and the aftermath of the elections are going to disrupt the schools I can understand, but where the schools have the capacity to operate without any interference from the elections themselves, I think those schools must be allowed to run. Because it's very difficult to make up for the loss of teaching time,” said Gani.

On Saturday, teachers’ union Sadtu came to the defence of the Education Department, saying that elections were a national priority as enshrined in the Constitution. Provincial secretary Nomarashiya Caluza said that while education was equally important, schools had been used as voting stations in all elections since 1994.

“However, government has a responsibility to ensure that there is smooth running of elections, (and) this includes making available infrastructure like schools for the IEC to deliver successful elections,” Caluza said.

“It is the same government that has taken the decision to make space available for elections and no one must be worried. Exams and their preparation is the responsibility of the same department of education.

“Therefore, it will be correct to allow the government (department) to take decisions and we have no doubt this decision was well thought through.”

Muzi Mahlambi, communications manager at the KZN Department Of Education, said the safety of pupils and teachers was the key reason why they decided to close schools that served as voting stations, and it was not the first time they had made this decision. He said instead of teachers and pupils coming to school and being sent back home, it made sense to close the schools so that parents had time to make arrangements for the children.

“For instance, you will find that we have special votes on Tuesday, which means the IEC will want to move their materials from Monday to the schools and start setting up, which means that Tuesday schools might be disturbed because of the in and out of people.

“Wednesday, obviously, the whole day ... our experience is that when counting starts, some counting will go beyond 10, 11 the following day and the counting is done at school. And when you have a school being used as a voting station, you have a lot of activities. You have your job, your joint operations being set up there by law enforcement agencies, that will include your ambulances, your traffic, your police, your officials, and observers,” Mahlambi said.

Sunday Tribune