South Africa prepares for schools to reopen – with a key change

Schools across South Africa are scheduled to reopen on Monday (26 July), along with an expected review of the current adjusted lockdown 4 regulations.

South Africa moved to an adjusted level 4 lockdown at the end of June in response to the third wave of Covid-19 infections. Although initially announced to be for two weeks, the lockdown was extended on 11 July for a further 14 days, with a review now expected on Sunday (25 July).

The move to level 4 lockdown led to the closure of all schools, with school holidays brought forward and lost teaching time expected to be made up during the typical winter holiday period.

The Department of Basic Education has gazetted Monday as the official reopening date for schools, but this could still change if president Cyril Ramaphosa and his cabinet extend the level 4 lockdown further.

The situation is reviewed weekly, the department said.

Key change

While all government school students are expected to return in some capacity from 26 July, a timetable change will also see primary school learners (Grades R – 7) return to school from 2 August for the first time in more than a year.

Since South Africa first introduced Covid-19 lockdown restrictions at the end of March 2020, most students are learning in a ‘shift system’ – with a large amount of coursework still expected to be done at home to encourage social distancing.

However, data shows that this system has not been an adequate replacement for full-time learning, with students falling behind on the curriculum by almost an entire year.

Teachers unions say that they are still assessing the readiness of schools, but are broadly supportive of the return to full schooling, provided health and safety regulations are followed to keep both students and staff safe.

Suid Afrikaanse Onderwysers Unie (SAOU) chief executive Chris Klopper told News24 that the regulations require primary schools to comply with social distancing and separation rules of one metre between learners.

However, he said that this would likely be difficult to enforce, so schools could consider putting up screens between learners or applying for exemptions.

This was echoed by the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of SA’s (Naptosa) Basil Manuel who said the union supported the reopening of school but would continue to assess the readiness of schools to abide by necessary protocols.

Lost time

Between March 2020 and June 2021, most primary school learners in South Africa have lost 70%-100% (i.e. a full year) of learning relative to the 2019 cohort, data from the latest National Income Dynamics Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM) shows.

In total, 93 days of schooling have occurred between 15 February 2021 and 30 June 2021, the researchers said.

Assuming contact learning for 50% of this time, best estimates suggest that most primary school children have lost between 70% to a full year of learning since March 2020.

“To put this in perspective, this is the same as saying that the average Grade 3 child in June 2021 would have the same learning outcomes as the average Grade 2 child in June 2019.

“However, the international evidence points towards additional effects of ‘forgetting’ or regression that could hinder current learning, particularly if teaching occurs as if the content of the previous year’s curriculum has been mastered, let alone learnt.”

Therefore, cumulative losses could exceed a full year of learning as students move through the school system, the researchers said.

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