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Back to School: Stop or go?

The new school year in South Africa coincided with a spike in COVID-19 cases. The Ministry of Education announced that the start of the new academic year will be postponed by a month to curb the further spread of the virus. The decision met with approval and criticism. Mark Potterton explains why delaying the return to classes is also a social justice issue.

With active COVID-19 cases at their highest since the start of the pandemic, an alarming number of deaths and hospital wards filled to capacity, many knew that schooling would not return to normal this year.

On 14 January, the Deputy Minister of Education, Reginah Mhaule, announced that schools will remain closed until 15 February to mitigate the risks of infection and the pressure on the health system. This put an end to the speculation about whether schools could safely reopen with the high infection rates in the country and the public risks entailed.

Scientific studies show that reopening schools where community transmission are high can contribute to an increase in infections. These studies argue for low classroom occupancy and solid infrastructure to quickly identify and isolate new infections.

More questions than answers

Unfortunately, the deputy minister’s address was full of mixed messages and the question-and-answer session did little to clarify matters. It would have been far more helpful if the deputy minister had included experts in her briefing to explain the consequences of the delayed reopening more clearly.

The deputy minister showed little empathy for the concerns of students, teachers and parents

Furthermore, Mhaule did nothing to dispel fears. She did not seem to know how many teachers had died from COVID-19 and showed little empathy for the concerns of students, teachers and parents. Teacher unions strongly opposed the deputy minister’s instruction for teachers to return to work before the postponed reopening date to prepare for the return of students. They argue that teachers are just as vulnerable as the children, citing the 1 600 teachers who already died since the COVID-19 outbreak in March last year. The Ministry of Education’s decision, they argue, shows no regard for the lives of teachers.

Mhaule also created further ambiguity by failing to mention whether this instruction was enforceable in independent schools. Some independent schools had already opened and others were preparing to open. This sector was severely impacted financially during the lockdown in 2020 and schools had to cut salaries and retrench staff members. Many in this sector feel that further delays in opening will negatively curtail their ability to collect school fees. Other schools felt that they are small enough and have the protocols and means to open safely, and that they should be allowed to do so.

Catholic Schools delay opening for the common good

The Catholic Schools Board, in an urgent communication after the deputy minister’s presentation, noted “while we know that younger children are less at risk, the new variant appears to involve a greater risk to adolescents. The World Health Organisation recommends that school closure decisions are taken in a risk mitigating manner and should be based on the strength of community transmission.” The current situation in South Africa does point to high community transmission at present, thereby justifying the decision to remain closed for now.

The Catholic School Board’s statement reiterates important Catholic social teaching, which states that the exercise of our human rights occurs within our social context and is also an exercise in justice.  Catholic schools, similarly, recognize that we live in common with others and the rights of individuals must always be balanced with the wider common good of all. Schools, therefore, need to act in solidarity with government in their fight against COVID-19 and join hands in responding to a major health challenge.

Balancing between education and saving lives

In this situation we cannot ignore the feelings of the children. After a very disrupted 2020 they were hopeful that things would be better this year. With books covered, shoes polished, and masks in hand, pupils are ready to go to school. The children I have spoken to are extremely disappointed that they cannot return to class, and the prospect of online learning does not excite them. The challenge is to explain to children that schools are closed in the interests of protecting them and their parents.

The children I have spoken to are extremely disappointed that they cannot return to class.

We also felt these tensions in our school. In 2020, the school was under tremendous financial pressure because of the impact on parents’ earning ability. Teachers and students were keen to resume face-to-face teaching and learning after a long break, and were dreading further disruption.

Many parents were worried about organizing childcare at home because many of them have returned to work. However, the need to act in solidarity and mitigate the spread of the virus remained uppermost in our thinking and so, we have delayed our opening to do our part to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Debate around the delayed opening of schools is much like the broader the debate of closing the economy to protect lives, or keeping it open to protect jobs and businesses. The COVID-19 crisis continues to confront many of us with ethical dilemmas. The delayed opening of schools is likely to mitigate the spread of the virus and an adjusted school year can compensate for time lost. Above all, we must think about the common good at this time and act with integrity and solidarity.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

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