‘Saving lives is most important than saving academic year’, say education ministers

An ambitious plan to return students to classrooms will be rolled out by the government. But with no firm dates yet for that return, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga says that schools will not open by “hook or crook”. 

Earlier in the week the minister also said that the academic year would not go down the drain and that matric learners will write exams by “hook or crook”. 

Separately, Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande also addressed the media on Thursday to say that university students will not return to campus as yet, and that the academic year is likely to extend into 2021.

Speaking at a media briefing on Thursday afternoon, Motshekga said there have been about 50 consultations with the relevant stakeholders in the education sector. The discussions had been ongoing since schools closed on March 18

She said at the centre of the consultations was the safety of teachers and learners. 

Teachers unions have already said that they will not allow their members to return to school if there are no safety measures in place. In a statement on Thursday, the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa (Naptosa) said that if no declaration is made to provide a safe working environment, the union would “seek legal advice on whether members could be compelled to return to work”. 

On Wednesday, the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) said “no schools shall open” until its concerns about safety in schools are met. 

Outlining plans for safety measures in schools, Motshekga said there would be physical distancing in classrooms. This would be achieved through measures such as not more than two learners sharing a desk; teachers and learners wearing cloth masks, which will be provided; classrooms being sanitised before the beginning of the school day; and everyone sanitising their hands before entering classrooms. 

The minister said buses ferrying learners to school will also be sanitised; there will be distance placed between learners in the bus; and wearing masks will be compulsory. 

She also said provinces are buying Covid-19 essential items for schools, which include personal protective equipment, sanitisers, soap, gloves and thermometers. 

The plan Motsekga presented is largely what director-general Mathanzima Mweli presented to the portfolio committee on basic education on Wednesday. The plan was met with skepticism from most MPs, who said they had doubts about the department’s “sudden capacity” to fix long-standing problems, such as overcrowding and sanitation at schools.  

The only difference in what Motshekga presented was the proposed dates to the academic calendar. Mweli’s presentation had said that grades seven and 12 learners would return to school on May 6, and other grades would do so in July. 

Motshekga said the presentation in Parliament was not final but was part of a consultation process with all stakeholders — the final decision would be taken by the Cabinet on when schools should open. She did, however, say that learners in grade seven and 12 might return on June 1, with other grades phased in after this.   

She confirmed other, more immediate dates. Office-based staff and school management teams will return to work on May 4. From May 11, school management teams will begin to prepare schools for learners to return. This would include them receiving sanitisers, protective equipment and ensuring that classrooms are disinfected.  

Motshekga said overcrowding — a concern that has been repeatedly raised — will not be an issue as there will only be two grades returning to school. 

Schools would not be forced to open if it was not safe to do so, she added. 

Higher education 

The higher education minister said there would be no campus-based activities at all higher education institutions during the level four lockdown period. The exception will be medical students, under strict conditions. 

“Firstly, whatever we do in the PSET (post-school education and training) sector, our responsibility is to lower the infection curve. Secondly, we must save the 2020 academic year, but not at the expense of lives. Thirdly, our efforts to save the academic year must avoid worsening the infection curve,” said Nzimande. 

He said from May until the country’s transition into a lower Covid-19 risk phase, the period will be used to put a number of critical interventions in place across the sector. These will include developing and implementing multi-modal remote learning systems for students. This entails online learning and the physical delivery of learning material to students if they have no access to digital devices. 

Nzimande said the 2020 academic year for universities will be reorganised and that it is likely to be extended to 2021, depending on the effects of the pandemic. 

He said it was impossible to say with certainty when students would physically be able to return to campus. “Until we reach that point, every effort is now being made to put in place multiple and flexible methods of teaching and learning to support our institutions and all our students.”

Nzimande made the announcement as some institutions have already started the second semester through online classes, with others providing loaned laptops to students and having made deals with cellphone networks to zero rate data to access learning material for their students. Other institutions have offered data to their students. 

The approach of online learning has been lambasted by student organisations, who have said it works for those in privileged positions, and that the majority of students from previously disadvantaged institutions and backgrounds will not benefit. 

Nzimande stressed in his address that the sector will make sure that no student or institution is left behind in their approach. 

He also added that the curriculum of technical and vocational education and training (TVET) and community colleges will be aligned. Nzimande said already there were radio and television broadcasts of lessons for TVET college students, which will continue for six months. He said there were plans to also provide students at these institutions with digital devices for online learning. 

Nzimande and Motshekga said although it was important to save the 2020 academic year, saving lives was most important. 

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