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Covid-19 and the right to basic education: The SA Human Rights Commission’s position

By André Gaum, Kenneth Sithebe and Sifiso Tembani•

9 June 2021

André Gaum is a commissioner at the South African Human Rights Commission, Khulisumuzi Kenneth Sithebe is a research adviser at the SAHRC and Sifiso Tembani is a consultant in the education sector.

Research indicates that the Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on basic education and if not addressed soon, will have cascading, negative effects on outcomes. The right to basic education is a foundational right as education ensures skills and knowledge for future employment, entrepreneurship, economic growth and poverty alleviation.

The right to basic education is enshrined in section 29(1)(a) of the Constitution, and reads: “Everyone has the right to a basic education, including adult basic education.” Further, this right is enshrined in other international instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Committee on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights’ General Comment on the Right to Education.

Within the South African context, and to give meaning to the right to basic education, the Constitutional Court, in Governing Body of the Juma Musjid Primary School and Others v Essay NO and Others held that this right is intrinsically linked with the personal development of children. The court stressed that the right to basic education is the basis for learning and the realisation of future opportunities. To this end, the Constitutional Court held that, unlike other socio-economic rights, the right to basic education is immediately realisable.

For the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), education is a fundamental right and the conclusions reached by research on the impact of the pandemic on education, is deeply concerning.

The recently published Wave 4 National Income Dynamics Study — Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (Nids-Cram Survey), together with monitoring exercises conducted by the SAHRC in 2020 and 2021, indicate that learning, especially for vulnerable children in the first three years of schooling, has been severely affected and may be damaging in the long term if decisive action is not taken.  

Collaborative research by the University of Stellenbosch and the Department of Basic Education (DBE), conducted as part of the Wave 4 Nids-Cram Survey, suggests that primary school children in no-fee schools have learnt between 50-75% less compared with previous years as a result of school closures and amended school timetables induced by Covid-19 measures.

The Early Grade Reading Study (EGRS) II assessed reading outcomes in children attending 130 no-fee schools in Mpumalanga in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020. When comparing 2020 outcomes to previous years, the data reflects losses of 79% in learners’ home language results and 52% in learning losses in English First Additional Language (EFAL) outcomes. Essentially, these foundation-phase learners have only learnt 21% and roughly half of what they would ordinarily have learnt in their home language, and in EFAL, respectively.

A study by the South African Labour and Development Research Unit (Saldru), in conjunction with the University of Cape Town and non-profit organisation, Funda Wande, showed a similarly detrimental effect on the ability of Grade 2 learners to identify letters and words (that is to gain the fundamental knowledge required for reading with meaning). The study sampled 57 no-fee schools in the Eastern Cape and found that Home Language outcomes had declined by between 53% and 68%.

The loss of learning described in the studies is likely to be cumulative. Each period of loss will be compounded and learners will struggle to grasp the more advanced concepts and texts of successive grades. This cumulative deficit will have devastating consequences for the learners concerned, unless interventions are introduced to substantially and immediately increase the “dosage” of reading, writing and mathematics in all primary school grades.

What the SAHRC has done to track the impact of Covid-19 on schools and learning

In 2020 and 2021, the SAHRC administered electronic surveys and physical oversight visits to public schools to understand the impact of Covid-19 regulations on schools.

The directions issued by the Minister of Education in terms of Regulation 4 (3) of the Regulations made under the Disaster Management Act (57/2002) regarding the Re-Opening of Schools and measures to Address, Prevent and Combat the Spread of Covid-19 guided the content of SAHRC survey instruments.

The first electronic survey, in June/July 2020, received responses from 4,485 schools. This represents nearly 20% of all the public schools in South Africa. The results from this survey suggested that provincial education departments had taken decisive steps to address the Covid-19 protocols: provision of masks and sanitisers, as well as the implementation of screening and hygiene processes. However, little had been done to ensure learning continued, especially for rural and township children.

The second SAHRC electronic survey of schools during the week of 24 August 2020 set out to monitor schools’ readiness to receive learners after nearly 100 teaching days had been lost due to lockdown regulations. The total number of schools which participated in this survey was 5,374. Again, strict adherence to hygiene and Covid-19 protocols was reported in the overwhelming majority of schools, but plans for feeding learners and providing learning materials were patchy.

In 2020 and 2021, commission monitors visited 211 schools. These visits found that academic planning for 2021 is difficult due to the large number of teaching days lost in 2020, and continuing regulations concerning social distancing.

Due to regulations on physical distancing, 91% of schools responded that they had applied alternative timetable models when learners returned to school in 2021. The schools visited used two main types of alternative timetable models. In some cases, a two-week cycle is used with different grades attending for one week and not the next week. At schools offering Grade 12, these learners attend every day, while grades 8, 9, 10 and 11 attend in alternative weeks.

The second model adopted is for different grades to attend on alternative days of the week. For example, Grade 1, Grade 3 and Grade 5 learners attend for two or three days per week and grades 2, 4, 6 and 7 learners attend on the other days. In some schools, classes are split into two and groups attend on alternative days.

One initiative which appears to have assisted teachers in this time was the Basic Education Employment Initiative (BEEI), which created temporary employment opportunities for 300,000 young people between the ages of 18 and 35 years old. Of these, 200,000 are education assistants and 100,000 are general school assistants.

Almost all schools visited (96%) confirmed that they had been allocated teacher assistants and/or general assistants. The roles and responsibilities of the appointed assistants included different combinations of the following: administration, Covid-19 protocols, in-classroom support, homework supervision and general school maintenance.

The monitoring visits to schools suggest that both schools and assistants benefited from the work opportunities afforded. School principals and teachers were complimentary about the work ethic and enthusiasm of the assistants. Many also commented that they would have struggled with the return to schools without the help of the assistants.

Importantly, the presence of the assistants relieved teachers of many Covid-19-related and administrative duties, and so allowed teachers to increase time spent in class with learners. The assistants themselves appear to have benefited from a wide range of work activities that may assist in skills development and obtaining future employment.

It is the commission’s view that the evidence both locally and internationally is so overwhelmingly clear on the impact of school closures and alternative timetabling on early learning that immediate action should be taken.

The commission, therefore, welcomes the Department of Basic Education’s decision that all primary school learners return to school on a full-time basis from 26 July 2021, while observing all the health and safety protocols. The commission understands the concerns of teachers and parents, especially given the possibility of a third Covid-19 wave. However, these concerns should be weighed against the very real possibility of irrecoverable learning losses which may affect primary school children for the rest of their lives. We recommend therefore that the return should be accompanied by:

    Increased and continuing support for adjusted Covid-19 protocols;
    A clear, simple catch-up programme for all primary school children that is based on curriculum trimming and, more importantly, increased daily doses of reading and mathematics;
    The continued deployment of teaching and general assistants to schools;
    The provision of readers and workbooks for all learners to take home for the remainder of 2021;
    An increased budget for take-home texts for all primary school children for 2021 and beyond; and
    Clear communication to parents on the importance of daily attendance at school and daily reading and writing.

Source: Daily Maverick

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