Please find attached voicenote from the DA Federal Leader John Steenhuisen MP.
The DA is compiling papers to bring an urgent interdict to direct schools to open fully. Government’s 1m distance policy for schools means that most schools are forced to operate on a rotational basis whereby each schoolchild only attends school 50% of the time. This policy is irrational, unjustifiable, unfair and downright outrageous.
There is no justification for continuing with rotational schooling. In the current South African context, this policy is devoid of any benefit in reducing infections.
The purpose of the policy was to enable 1m social distancing in classrooms, to thereby take pressure off the health system by slowing the spread of the virus. Yet, the health system has not been under pressure from the virus during the fourth wave.
Unlike many other countries, there is a very high level of natural immunity in the SA population, driven by a high rate of prior infection. This immunity is now considered by scientists to be in the region of 70-90% of the SA population. Therefore, Covid hospitalisations have been much lower than previous waves. And even so, 50% of them have been incidental, meaning people were admitted for non-Covid reasons and then happened to test positive, so did not require ventilation or Covid ICU bed space.
Covid deaths have “decoupled” from Covid cases, as per the attached graph (Click here to download graph).
The reason for the policy no longer exists, therefore it is irrational.
Unsurprisingly, the government has failed to justify its decision. The only communication has been from Basic Education Minister in her press statement of 11 January, in which she stated:
With regards to schooling, the situation will remain the same, especially rotational time-tabling, where it was applicable when we concluded schooling in 2021. The fact of the matter, is that COVID-19 is very much still with us, and we need to continue to work together to fight it. We are exploring possibilities to return schooling to normal, but we need to do so responsibly; and to this end, we rely entirely on the advice of public health experts, through the Ministerial Advisory Committee, the National Coronavirus Command Council, and indeed Cabinet. At the right time, we will come back to report on progress being made.
As educational expert, Nic Spaull, tweeted on 28 October 2021:
In WC 86% of primary schools are STILL practicing rotational timetables in Oct 2021. I think it’s clear that @DBE_SA and COGTA need to clarify whether the 1m social distancing rule is a prerequisite before schools go back fully. It’s not. This is a generational catastrophe.
Government’s own Ministerial Advisory Council advised in July 2021 already that all schools should open at full capacity, even where children are not able to be one metre apart in classrooms.
Risk outweighs the benefit
The risk to schoolchildren that accrues from them missing school far outweighs the benefit to those in the high-risk group that accrues from having schoolchildren on a rotational schooling system.
There is evidence of schoolchildren losing 57-81% of their reading ability due to rotational schooling.
Most schoolchildren lost over 50% of their schooling in 2020 and 2021. Hundreds of thousands have dropped out of school altogether as a result of the indirect effects of Covid regulations. In 2021 alone, some 370 000 to 700 000 learners dropped out of school, adding to the already burgeoning ranks of youth not in education, employment or skills training.
UNICEF South Africa representative Christine Muhigana says: “The reality is that South Africa cannot afford to lose another learner or another hour of learning time. It is urgent that we get every child back into the classroom, safely, now.”
Rotational schooling is also causing mental distress, increased exposure to violence and abuse, and increased malnutrition from missed school meals. All of which have long-term consequences for the health and well-being of this and future generations.
There is a need to balance the rights of the high-risk group to health with the rights of children to education. However, those individuals who have a high-risk of severe disease or death from Covid have the option of getting vaccinated. There is no supply or access problem with vaccines. And there is evidence that vaccines are highly effective at providing protection from severe disease and death. (insert stats here). Unvaccinated individuals in the high-risk group have chosen this risk.
On the other side, schoolchildren have no choice to attend school fully.
The SA Paediatric Association has called for over a year for schools to open fully, stating: “In most settings schools have contributed minimally to community transmission. Conversely, not returning to school has profound negative consequences, including detrimental effects on education, nutrition, mental and physical health, and finances.”
Teachers have had plenty of time to get vaccinated if they so choose. Schoolchildren cannot be made sacrificial lambs to cover for government’s inadequate vaccination campaign or for adults’ failure to get vaccinated.
As Wits Professor of Vaccinology Shabir Mahdi tweeted on 12 January: “Immediate full opening of schools in SA can no longer be delayed to protect selfish interest of adults who choose to remain unvaccinated or inefficiency to rollout boosters to high risk groups. Children remain at nominal risk of severe disease have suffered disproportionately.”
Rotational schooling is deepening inequality, as it disproportionately impacts poor children, who can least afford to miss school and the myriad benefits that school attendance brings. Poor quality education is the second biggest factor driving poverty and inequality in South Africa.
The 1m policy is being applied inconsistently. Taxis have been able to operate at full capacity. ANC and EFF rallies have gone ahead without social distancing or masking.
Without a rational justification, denying schoolchildren their constitutional right to education is a gross miscarriage of justice. The DA has therefore approached the High Court to compel schools to open fully and immediately.