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Media Statement: SAHRC on learners returning to school

Attention: Editors and Reporters

15 July 2020

The South African Human Rights Commission (the SAHRC or the Commission) is constitutionally mandated to promote, protect, monitor and assess the observance of all human rights in South Africa.

The COVID-19 pandemic has bought into sharp focus the range of complex issues relating to the rights of children to education.

A wide variety of research studies and newspaper articles have been published on these matters and have sparked extensive debate on whether and when children should return to school.

The Commission has studied these reports and considered the various emerging views on the rights of children and their return to school. Some of these views are strongly opposed to children returning to schools. The Commission understands the concerns expressed and acknowledges that there will be infections at some schools.

However, the Commission supports the position of Unicef that children should return to schools as soon as possible because ‘evidence points to harm being done to children by not being in school.’

In taking this decision the Commission has considered the following:

1.    By the end of July 2020 South African children, depending on the grade they are in, will have lost between 20% and 50% of scheduled school days as a result of COVID-19 school closures.
2.    The social, economic and health costs associated with lockdown and school closures. Researchers including Van Der Berg & Spaull (University of Stellenbosch); Fall (Unicef), Ndong-Jatta (Unesco), Moeti (WHO) and Taylor (JET) present evidence of the following:
    Increases in hunger and malnutrition. For many poor children the meal they get at school constitutes a high percentage of total food they receive daily.

    Increases in acute malnutrition significantly raise the risk of children dying from pneumonia, diarrhea and HIV/AIDS.

    Poor children are not being screened for diseases which kill thousands of South Africans annually and severely compromise many more, notably TB and HIV.

    Increased risk of child abuse, mental health breakdowns with rising rates of depression and anxiety.

    Children are at high risk of being left home alone when their caregivers go to work.

3.    Education outcomes associated with school closures. Researchers including Reddy, Soudien, Winnaar (HSRC); Hoadley (UCT); and Taylor (JET) predict the following:

    Learning losses for almost all children
    Increases in inequality since poorer learners and schools are least able to continue learning
    Poorer children regress significantly in terms of reading and maths skills during extended absence from school.

SAHRC Electronic Survey of Schools

The Commission recently conducted an electronic survey of public schools in South Africa to understand the readiness of schools to receive additional learners after schools were closed on 26 March 2020.

The Directions issued by the Minister of Education on 22 June 2020 guided the content of the survey instrument.

The Commission received responses from 4 485 schools. This represents close to 20% of schools in South Africa.  

Because the survey was anonymous and voluntary, the results of the survey cannot be said to be representative of the schools in the country and cannot be used to make any claims about the readiness of schools to receive learners.
Despite these limitations, the results of the Survey provide useful information to the Commission and Provincial Departments of Education.
Survey Results
The SAHRC Survey covered the following:
1.    Health and Safety measures at schools
In all nine provinces, over 90% of schools reported that all learners wear masks at schools. In all provinces over 95% of schools reported that staff wear masks at school.
The percentage of responding schools reporting running water ranged from 47% (Eastern Cape) to 99% (Western Cape). In three provinces over 90% of schools reported having running water (Gauteng, Northern Cape and Western Cape). The remaining provinces reported as follows: KZN (59%) Mpumalanga (78%); Limpopo (74%); Eastern Cape (47%); Free State (89%) and North West ( 89% ).

In respect of sanitisers, in four provinces over 90% of schools reported having sufficient sanitisers (Gauteng, Free State, Northern Cape, Western Cape). The other five provinces reported as follows: Eastern Cape (81%), KZN (78%), Limpopo (89%), North West (69%) and Mpumalanga (69%).

In all provinces, over 95% of responding schools reported having screening processes in place. In four provinces, over 90% of schools reported that staff involved in screening had been trained in the screening process (North West, Northern Cape, Free State, KZN).

2.    Learner and Staff Attendance
    74% of schools reported over 80% teacher attendance
    72% of schools reported over 80% learner attendance
    76% of schools reported over 80% support staff attendance

3.    Oversight Visits by the Provincial Education Department
64% of schools reported receiving monitoring visits from provincial officials.
4.    Planning
The SAHRC Electronic Survey asked schools for information on their plans for the return of additional grades in July and August 2020. Over 70% of schools reported plans to be in place except for the provision of learning materials to children not yet at school.

5.    Communication with parents / caregivers
Over 70 % of schools responded positively on communication of dates of return to schools for each grade; conditions for learners to return to schools, the health and safety measures adopted by the schools and the suspension of extra-curricular activities.
However, only 44% of schools reported informing parents of the plans for assessment of learners (assessment tasks, tests, examinations, etc.) for 2020; 61% reported informing parents that if they choose not to send their child to school, they must apply for home-schooling and 59%  reported informing parents that they must apply to the Head of Department if they wish their child to be exempted entirely, partially or conditionally from compulsory school attendance.
The SAHRC electronic survey suggests that PDEs have taken decisive steps to address the following safety matters: masks, sanitisers and screening processes.  
However, the results of the Survey have raised particular areas of concern and will inform the Commission’s monitoring visits to schools from 8 July to 30 August 2020:

1.    Access to learning materials – a growing body of international and local research provides evidence of the devastating and long-term effects for young children not reading and writing for extended periods. The commission will focus on access to learning materials for learners at schools and for those waiting to return to schools.

2.    Access to running water in selected provinces

3.    Planning for the return of additional grades

4.    Communication with parents

In doing so, the Commission shall seek expertise and guidance on these and other issues.

Ends –
Issued by the South African Human Rights Commission
Gushwell Brooks – Communications Co-ordinator Tel: 082 645 8573 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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