On 19 May 2020, the Minister of Basic Education briefed the nation on plans for the return to school – providing the nation with leadership and certainty. She confirmed a staggered return to school, starting with Grades 12 and 7 on 1 June 2020 followed by other grades over time. In her address, the Minister announced that the health and safety of not only learners but also educators and all school personnel was paramount and she outlined some of the health and safety measures regarded as essential for a safe return to school.
As the Zenex Foundation, we applaud the Department of Basic Education for its considered response to ensuring that schools are ready to return. Balancing health, safety and learning is imperative but complex during these uncertain times. Learning must continue in order to ensure the building of the skills needed for South Africa’s future, but it must be done safely. We are also pleased that the Minister is prioritising the provision of water and sanitation. A survey conducted by five teacher unions in May 2020 says that 78% of schools reported that sanitation facilities do not have soap and water. The country has approximately 26,000 schools and therefore a herculean task lies ahead of the Department. We are, however, hopeful that the National Department and its Provincial Departments together with districts and schools will have schools ready ahead of learners’ return on 1 June. Given the enormity of the task at hand, all stakeholders need to get behind the education system and support it.
Parents have raised legitimate concerns on various platforms about the safety of their children when they return to school. This is understandable as COVID-19 has raised fears and anxieties, globally. The emerging evidence to date suggests that young children are less affected than adults if they contract the novel corona virus, but more public education is needed on this point. We believe that ongoing communication and engagement with parents is necessary if parents are to feel confident about sending their children back to school.
In the Department’s Recovery Plan, the Minister outlined the approach to curriculum implementation. We support the focus on the fundamentals of maths and languages. A trimmed curriculum must be prioritised to address learning losses and to help all learners with the foundational subjects of maths and language, as well as to help to alleviate the impact of the learning backlogs that already affect many children in the system and limit their ability to achieve in these vital subjects.
Because of the staggered return to school, Foundation Phase learners will in all likelihood only return to school at the end of July, having missed more than 50 days of school. While the Department has prioritised Grade 12s and Grade 7s, we believe that mechanisms should be found for young children in early grades to continue with their schooling, such as parents collecting materials from school for learners, the broadcasting of radio and television education programmes, as well as on-line learning. We need multiple platforms as a singular focus on on-line learning is not feasible given the small percentage of learners who have access to the internet.
We know that the Education Department cannot achieve this all alone and the Zenex Foundation commits to continuing and intensifying its support to the Department at all levels of the system as we navigate the “new normal”. We call on all education stakeholders to join hands and to use this opportunity to work together and collaborate to achieve the fourth Sustainable Development Goal, which commits to an inclusive and equitable quality education and the promotion of lifelong learning opportunities for all.