IT IS WITH deep disappointment that we note the decision of the national Cabinet to once again close schools for a whole month. The arguments from governing body associations, NGOs and medical specialists highlighting the positives of children being at school and the negatives of not being at school, have been swept aside on a wave of political expediency.
It is, plainly and simply, capitulation to teacher unions, and an attempt, once again, to bring every province down to the lowest common denominator because ANC-run provinces have not used the lockdown period to adequately prepare their health systems, and have decades of neglect in fixing their school infrastructure.
We supported having a break for two weeks on the basis that many of our teachers and learners have been working during the lockdown, it has been an anxious time putting new processes in place, and there is no real holiday provided in the current calendar for the rest of the year. This should be a complete break for people to rest and anxiety levels to dissipate.
But an additional four weeks is going to cause immeasurable damage to our children and our economy.
People who continue calling for schools to shut down clearly either do not understand the implications on the system and the children, or do not care.
Research has shown that the negative effects of closing schools are profound.
The first and most obvious impact is on educational outcomes. Studies of previous epidemics and disasters which resulted in school closures have shown that learners remain behind schedule on learning for years to come. Keeping learners engaged during school closures is difficult, and we are likely to see a regression from prior learning levels as a result. Dropout rates also increase during protracted school closures, and the impact is greatest on the enrolment of girls according to a number of international organisations.
Both the World Bank and UNESCO have highlighted the unequal nature of educational impacts. Children whose parents have the resources to provide internet access and continuous parental supervision will be able to continue their learning during closures, but learners without access to these resources will fall further and further behind. Instead of closing the education quality gap, school closures will actively increase it.
Secondly, closure has a serious impact on the nutrition of vulnerable children. An estimated 2.5 million children in South Africa experienced hunger before the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown, and experts are warning of a rapid increase in hunger as a result of both the job losses and the closure of schools due to the pandemic. Surveys by Stats SA, the Human Sciences Research Council and Ask Afrika revealed sharp increases in hunger due to the lockdown. Whilst schools will continue with the feeding programme, in line with the recent court order, it is highly unlikely that all learners who need it will be able to get to school to collect food, especially in very rural communities.
Child safety is also put at risk by school closures. The economy is open while schools are closed – meaning that parents who are not teachers have to go to work. Parents of millions of children who would otherwise be safely at school must now scramble to find someone to care for their children so that they can go to work. The reality is that many of these children will have to stay home alone, and health experts are already reporting the terrible consequences in terms of injury or death of unsupervised children.
Healthcare and other essential workers have voiced their disappointment at the calls by teachers to close schools. Their children must stay at home alone instead of going to school, adding yet more stress and anxiety to the workers at highest risk of becoming infected.
The mental health of our children is also deteriorating. Recent international studies have confirmed that school closures increase the occurrence of psychological stress and depression in children, while UNESCO has warned that the social isolation children will experience as a result of school closures will affect their social development. Children are at greater risk of abuse during school closures, without the normal reporting channels that schools provide.
There are future negative consequences for our children as well. The Brookings Institution estimated that school closures of just four months will cost students (and the economy) in the United States an estimated $2.5 trillion in lost future earnings. One study suggested lost learning time due to a disaster can cause children to earn 15% less in every year of their adult lives. Lost earnings is not simply an issue of money – earnings are directly related to health, food security, safety and general wellbeing.
These consequences vastly outweigh the risk to learners and staff of schools being open. I recently outlined the facts of Covid-19 cases at schools: we are not seeing mass spreading of the virus at schools, and we do not have evidence of a greater risk to adults or children at school relative to other places. So the decision to close schools for another protracted period is not based on science or the facts.
The same government that has allowed taxis to operate at 100% capacity where people can sit right next to each other for up to 200km, deems it necessary to close schools again, where learners and teachers sit suitably spaced with proper protocols in place.
In addition, the DBE has fought – and won – three court cases where people or organisations have sought to close schools, by justifying their decision to open them because, when taking into account the negative effects of closing schools on children, it is better to keep them open.
It is clear that this is the height of irrationality, and not backed up by the facts.
I believe that this decision is going to cost South Africa dearly in the future, and it is once again the poor who are going to suffer the most.
Debbie Schäfer is the MEC of Education in the Western Cape