This is why Angie Motshekga will absolutely not scrap the school year

Grade 12 pupils at Phulong Secondary School in KwaThema with basic education minister Angie Motshekga.
Grade 12 pupils at Phulong Secondary School in KwaThema with basic education minister Angie Motshekga. 
Image: Thulani Mbele

In his open letter to minister of basic education Angie Motshekga, Prof Jonathan Jansen argues passionately for the school year to be abandoned.

He appears first to strike an encouraging tone with the minister before he admonishes her with: “Unfortunately, minister, you cannot dictate academic terms to a novel coronavirus.”

The choice of words is not lost on the reader; the eminent professor employs his skilful language punch to characterise the minister as a dictator in the eyes of those whose sympathies lie with the professor’s argument. These sympathies are bought by fearmongering tactics that he so cunningly deploys. To drive his point into the trembling hearts of a public seized with uncertainty over a virus that morphs daily and evades medical science, he throws in a salvo: “Teachers have died, principals have been on ventilators. Children have been infected. Non-teaching staff have become seriously ill.”

These are words employed by a crafty wordsmith to drive home a point that seeks to turn public sentiment against a hard-working minister committed to finding effective and all-encompassing solutions to not only salvage the academic year (which is not a crime, by the way) but to also keep access open for the poorest of the poor in far-flung communities of the republic who need an open classroom if they are to take aim at a possible future free of ignorance and poverty.

We are not convinced of the argument to roll up and close the school year. We are neither certain that this would be a desirable and responsible option for the many marginalised children, who rely on our schools. We will never tire from explaining that our approach to school reopening is a result of a carefully considered process listening to many different views from our stakeholders and respectfully paying attention to the fears and anxieties of parents and pupils themselves.

We have also listened to science and medical experts who pay careful attention to the evolution of Covid-19 and its implications for education policy and practice. At the same time an impression must not be created that we are trying to save the academic year at the expense of lives. The SA government is allowing various sectors to gradually resume activities to maintain the balance between saving lives and livelihood. Needless to say, the provision of basic education is part of livelihood.     

Now that we have clarified this point, it is time to refer Prof Jansen respectfully to his colleague at the same university, Martin Gustafsson – an associate professor in the economics department of Stellenbosch University, and senior researcher at RESEP, specialising in education policy and comparative education – and listen carefully to some of the findings the professor has shared in trying to consider implications of the department’s school reopening programme in the context of available data on Covid-19 and children of school-going age.

It is important that parents and the public differentiate between schools reopening from all the other important strategies used to reduce transmission and which are still in place.

We also would encourage Prof Jansen to listen to the findings of Unesco, on the negative impact an extended school lockdown potentially has on the prospects of pupils in poor communities. In their recent report, “Adverse Consequences of School Closures”, Unesco explains that school closures carry high social and economic costs for people across communities.

Their impact, however, is particularly severe for the most vulnerable and marginalised boys and girls and their families. The resulting disruptions exacerbate existing disparities within the education system and in other aspects of their lives.

We have invested time in explaining that back to school doesn’t mean back to normal. The reopening of schools does not mean a return to education as it was before. Other measures may also be put in place, like staggering lunch breaks, limiting face-to-face contact between staff and parents, and regular hand-washing breaks. 

Kids with a cold or other symptoms must stay home. And older teachers or those with underlying health conditions (comorbidities) that put them at greater risk of complications if infected with Covid-19, will have altered responsibilities.

It is important that parents and the public differentiate between schools reopening from all the other important strategies used to reduce transmission and which are still in place. These include social distancing, travel restrictions, case isolation and quarantine, and banning of large gatherings.

Returning to some of Prof Jansen’s thoughts, it is surprising that the open letter and many other articles he has penned in recent times criticising the department’s effort to reopen schools suggest we must accept that affluent schools on their own will save the academic year and children of the working class and the poor should accept that their academic year is over. It would also seem clear that the government is counselled in these letters and articles to fold their arms and to roll over to the magical 2021 to only return to its mandate then.

The minister has said repeatedly that the main reason for reopening was to make sure that poor children who don’t have resources such as information and communication technologies should benefit in school, which is where they are better serviced. It is particularly the poor who are at risk if schools don’t open so those are the principles that have been guiding us.

We recognise that we must find workable solutions that will allow us to continue with educating our children in the midst of an unfolding crisis; a new reality even through 2021.

We have not followed the example of Kenya – an example the professor refers to as “courageous” in a hidden attempt to impugn the efforts of minister Motshekga.

We have instead crafted our path informed first by our conditions on the ground, guided by our medical scientists who have encouraged the country to brace itself to co-exist with Covid-19 for the foreseeable future.

Those who think that 2021 will bring much-needed relief are relying unfortunately on data we have not seen.

We recognise that we must find workable solutions that will allow us to continue with educating our children in the midst of an unfolding crisis; a new reality even through 2021.

Dr Nic Spaull and Prof Gustafsson, among others, spend time studying the potential impact of the pandemic on our school system, and they have reached different conclusions to those espoused by Prof Jansen, who by the way, we are not aware of any work produced by him on the impact of Covid-19 on schooling, except for his tabloid snippets.

The obligations of White Paper 1 on education create an obligation on the state to acknowledge and respect education. This translates also into an obligation on the state to acknowledge and respect the constitutional provision of equality. 

It is as a result of these constitutional obligations that the department of basic education pursues the ideal of equal access to basic education as an inalienable right not only to those who can access online learning platforms with all the gadgetry required because of their access to resources and associated luxuries, but also those who continue to battle on the frontiers of poverty and marginalisation.

Witness to this is borne by the efforts we have made to keep education provision ongoing; we have, through our partnerships with the department of communications and digital technologies, identified free online sites where pupils can access learning materials; we have partnered with the SABC to stream lessons and revision content; and we have provided the home education option to parents who wish not to return their children to school.

We are resolute in our endeavour to return schools to functioning capacity in the current academic year and mitigate the negative impacts Covid-19 poses to the learning development of our children. 

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