School closures prompt fierce debate

The decision by the department of basic education (DBE) to delay the re-opening of schools until February 15 has been met with heavy debate from all sides of the country.

NO RIGHT ANSWER: DBE deputy minister Dr Reginah Mhaule’s announcement that schools would remain closed until February has received mixed responses
Picture: SIBONGILE MASHABA

Speaking to the press on Friday, DBE deputy minister Dr Reginah Mhaule said that the decision was made after extensive consultations with stakeholders such as the Council of Education Ministers (CEM), the Heads of Education Departments Committee (Hedcom), teachers unions, principal associations and school governing body associations.

“This is done to provide relief to the health system which is already struggling to cope with the current demands,” Mhaule said.

To some, this was seen as a necessary move to help curb the spread of Covid-19 infections.

Ministerial Advisory Committee chair Professor Salim Abdool Karim is in support of the decision, saying “it may be wise to postpone the opening of schools”.

As reported by TimesLIVE: “[Karim] said his biggest concern was the disruption that would be caused if teachers, other school staff and pupils contract the coronavirus and force schools to temporarily close for sanitisation.”

A poll by the University of Johannesburg and HSRC appears to show that a majority of adults share Karim’s sentiments, with 53% of adults polled saying that schools should remain closed “until the situation approves”.

However, there has been equal pushback in the opposite direction. SA Paediatric Association executive member Dr Simon Strachan told Newzroom Afrika that children were at a far lower risk of Covid-19 than adults.

“There’s been a steady increase in children [contracting Covid-19] but children under ten years of age still only account for 2.5% of all cases of Covid [in South Africa].

“Deaths in children under ten [from Covid-19] are 0.02% of all deaths,” he said.

“Any death is a tragedy and any death we try to avoid but in children, there is no question that they get a milder form of illness compared to adults.”

Strachan said the decision to delay the re-opening of schools was “not a decision based on science”.

The department’s decision has also caught flak from international advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW).

In their 2021 Human Rights Report, HRW called the government’s response to Covid-19 “negligent”.

“The South African government’s responses to the Covid-19 pandemic worsened the plight of children across South Africa in 2020. This included the closure of the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) without contingency plans to feed nine million economically vulnerable children during the national lockdown.

“The government also closed schools and Early Childhood Development (ECD) centers with inadequate plans to keep children learning during lockdown. The government also neglected to ensure that learning platforms were inclusive for learners with disabilities,” the report said.

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