matric exam rewrite

Minister Angie Motshekga gives update on the preparations for the re-opening of schools during a media briefing held at Tshedimosetso House in Pretoria. [Photo: GCIS]

Here’s why Grade 7 and 12 pupils are not returning to school this week

Pupils will not be returning to school this week, leading to more uncertainty around the prospects of the 2020 curriculum.

matric exam rewrite

Minister Angie Motshekga gives update on the preparations for the re-opening of schools during a media briefing held at Tshedimosetso House in Pretoria. [Photo: GCIS]

The Department of Basic Education has revoked its plans to reopen schools to Grade 7 and 12 pupils on Monday 1 June.

As South Africa enters a new era of relaxed regulations under lockdown, concerns around saving the school curriculum while ensuring the safety of teachers, pupils and parents have forced government to rethink its original reopening plan.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga revealed that a serious delay in procuring personal protective equipment (PPE), coupled with growing concerns tabled by teachers unions and civil societies, had hampered efforts to rescue the 2020 school calendar. Motshekga, who cancelled a last-minute address on Sunday night, briefed the media on Monday, confirming a postponement which would see pupils return on 8 June.

Motshekga, who apologised for the postponement and subsequent uncertainty, noted that vital engagements with the Council of Education Ministers (CEM) had forced government to rethink its back to school timetable. The Minister said that three reports — by the National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT), Rand Water and the Heads of Education Departments Committee (HEDCOM) – had informed the latest decision to delay the return to class. Motshekga said:

“Based on these reports, it became clear that the sector was at different levels of readiness. In the main, it was for this reason that the CEM determined that the sector requires more time to mop-out its state of readiness for school reopening, in order to comply with the health and safety standards on COVID-19. “

Motshekga added that reports tabled by the CEM revealed that while 80% of schools were ready to reopen, under-resourced institutions could not be left behind by government’s approach.

Back to school strategy falls flat

Government’s phased approach to schooling — which mimics lockdown’s overarching risk-adjusted policy — was met with mixed reactions. While some South Africans supported the reopening of classrooms, citing the national necessity for education, opponents to the plan argued that, in light of rapidly rising COVID-19 numbers and the looming winter months, government’s premature back to school strategy would spell disaster.

Despite Motshekga’s assurances of stringent safety protocols — bolstered by promises of consistent water supplies, PPE deliveries and sanitation stations — many provincial departments reported dire states of unpreparedness. Recent reports note only two provinces — the Western Cape and Gauteng — being adequately prepared to receive learners.  

Push back from unions and public petitions

The South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) has been hypercritical of Motshekga’s back to school plan. The organisation, joined by several other unions in the education sector, has repeatedly called for teachers and pupils to stay home. Citing the department’s inability to provide all schools with clear health and safety directives, Sadtu has argued that the education sector would only be allowed to move forward in a unified approach.

With many schools still lacking proper protective measures, Sadtu has supported the postponement, saying it would be unfair for some provinces to move forward in isolation.

Former Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Mmusi Maimane, through his new non-political initiative, One SA Movement, has also criticised Motshekga’s plan. Maimane, who created an online petition which garnered over 120 000 signatures, has argued that schools should only be allowed to reopen in August 2020.

On Saturday, Maimane confirmed that legal proceedings had been launched to halt the department’s 1 June plan. The court order released by Maimane listed four respondents; President Ramaphosa, the South African government, Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Motshekga.

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) also called on Motshekga to abandon the plan for pupils to return on 1 June and threatened legal action against the Department of Basic Education should it fail to heed widespread warnings.

Facing a wave of public disapproval, legal action and union-sponsored boycotts, Motshekga conceded to the department’s flawed plan. The minister noted that further engagements with all stakeholders would be intensified in the coming weeks and months.

Lack of PPE, water and sanitation strategies

The department’s biggest stumbling block in its plan to reopen schools was its own inability to ensure the delivery of PPEs and other hygiene tools. In early May, Motshekga said that schools would only be able to reopen if aligned with stringent health and safety protocols.

In this regard, the department promised to supply PPEs, running water and sanitizers to all schools. Unfortunately, ostensibly due to a case of over demand and under supply, the department was unable to fulfil its own assurances. Although most schools in major metros were able to procure adequate equipment and sanitise classrooms, institutions in under resourced regions could not meet the deadline.

Motshekga added that delays in supplying running water to schools – specifically in rural areas – had complicated the reopening of classrooms.

When will pupils return?

With the new directive calling for Grade 7 and 12 pupils to return to class on Monday 8 June, Motshekga has urged all provincial departments to redouble their readiness efforts. Teachers and school management teams have been instructed to ensure that all government regulations are adhered to. Motshekga explained:

“It is critical that parents do not bring Grades 7 and 12 learners to school today; but teachers, whose PPEs have been delivered, are expected to report for work, and carry out the responsibilities I have already spelled-out.  More importantly, the sector has agreed that effective teaching and learning, is expected to resume on 08 June 2020.”

Western Cape forges ahead with controversial reopening

The Western Cape Education Department (WCED) has, meanwhile, defied new instructions delivered by national government and Minister Motshekga. MEC for Education in the Western Cape, Debbie Schäfer, argued that schools in the provinces were ready to receive learners and that Monday 1 June — being the official date gazetted — would be adhered to.

Schäfer added that some schools — which had not yet received PPEs or had identified positive coronavirus cases – would remain closed.