On Thursday the Ministers of Higher and Basic Education, Blade Nzimande and Angie Motshekga, both confirmed that the opening of institutions to learners and students will not take place during May but at a later date.
But a major disjuncture emerged in their joint press conference between the approach of the two Departments, which could lead to serious problems in the smooth transitions that the system requires.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) intends to monitor both Departments rigorously, to ensure that learners and students are neither subjected to health risks, nor to risks to their education resulting from disjunctures between the timetables of schools, colleges and universities.
Schools will probably open to Grades 12 and 7 learners on 1 June, said Minister Motshekga, delayed from the original opening date of early May. The DA welcomes this postponement. The remainder of the learners will return in a phased manner, grade by grade. We trust that these phases are relatively widely spaced so that schools have time to adjust to the intake of each grades, given the health protocols that will be required.
We also welcome the stated intention of Minister Motshekga that her Department will devote much of the month of May to the preparation of schools for opening. This preparation will need to be extremely detailed and highly organised, across thousands of institutions and involving thousands of teachers and other staff. Systematic and vital health and safety requirements will be required of each school.
But the DA is concerned about some of the provinces’ capacity to implement these requirements in time, throughout the system. Each school will need to be ready to manage a strict, detailed set of protocols designed to protect learners and teachers against infection by Covid-19 before any learners are admitted. Whether this can be done adequately in all parts of the country, so that our 13 million learners and thousands of teachers are properly protected in the 25 days of May set aside for it is uncertain.
The DA will therefore be monitoring schools in every province to ensure that the implementation of these plans takes place; and we will ensure that the Basic Education Portfolio Committee receives progress reports weekly from the Department itself.
The opening date for universities and colleges remains a mystery, although the Minister did hint that it also could take place on 1 June.
But worryingly, Minister Nzimande’s plans, unlike those of Minister Motshekga, seem not to include a detailed plan for health protocols after re-opening. Rather they focussed on the issue of the stop-gap until re-opening – online teaching – and the difficulties of making this work across our wide range of institutions. It became clear that the obstacles to this remain immense. The Minister has plans to obtain laptops for all NSFAS students – some 800 000 of them. Surely this is an impossibility in the short time available.
We reiterate our view that online teaching on its own is a poor substitute for face-to-face teaching, and works best when ‘blended” with face-to-face methods. It remains essential that, like schools, universities and colleges need to re-open as soon as possible within the health parameters defined by the Department of Health. This is of particular importance for those doing courses with practical components, many of them professionals such as engineers, architects, various medical programmes, art and music.
Thus focussing on a definite date for re-opening, and planning for that, would probably be a better use of the Ministry’s time than searching for the Holy Grail of online teaching. Improving our online capacity is an excellent thing to do, but it is surely not as important as getting students back into the lecture halls, libraries and laboratories.
The DA will be monitoring this Department too, to ensure that its plans for reopening come to the fore and that the preparation of institutions for protecting the health of incoming students and staff is as detailed and focussed as possible.