We are not ready!
Response to the DBE’s presentation to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee of Basic Ed
by C19 People’s Coalition: ECD and Basic Education sub-group
Why the hurry to send learners back to a fundamentally unequal and unjust schooling system unable to meet the challenges of COVID?
The C19 People’s Coalition ECD and Basic Education subgroup wishes to raise the following concerns regarding the presentation made on the 29th of April to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Basic Education by the Department of Basic Education.
We recognise that the dates shared in this presentation are subject to change when the Minister addresses the general public on the 30th of April. However, several concerns are still valid, even in light of these potential changes. That the presentation was televised to the general public on free-to-air broadcast channels is, in and of itself, disconcerting–this premature broadcast has caused widespread confusion and concern amongst multiple groups, not the least for parents, learners and teachers who are concerned for their and their families’ safety when schools reopen.
Different opening dates notwithstanding, unfortunately, many of the propositions in the presentation once again reflect the disjuncture between policymakers’ ideas of schools and the reality on the ground. These include, but are not limited to:
- material conditions, in the form of overcrowding and shortage of personnel, as well as hygiene facilities in schools;
- logistical limitations, including moving learners to and from school safely, adhering to physical distancing practices within cramped spaces, and distribution of large volumes of PPE and other infrastructure such as water provision to a large number of institutions within a short period of time;
- assumptions about policy enactment, including the capacity of, and consultation with, district officials and Senior Management Teams who are expected to make these policies happen;
- the fairness or feasibility of assessments that genuinely reflect students’ abilities and knowledge; and
- the incongruency of envisaged schooling arrangements with broader aspects of the COVID response plan, including testing, isolation and contact tracing.
While the C19 People’s Coalition recognises the importance of schooling in a just society, we also cannot turn a blind eye to the existing inequities that predate the COVID moment. What the majority of our learners receive when they go to school is not acceptable, and certainly not worth risking life and limb for. We therefore strongly urge that not only should schools be reopened under safe conditions, but also under more just conditions where what passes for learning is meaningful, and learners and teachers alike are supported to construct learning opportunities free from overcrowding, violence, and disruptions to lessons created by understaffed and poorly infrastructured schools. We cannot ask people to ‘go back’ and ‘return to normalcy’ if such normalcy implies that a few return to privilege while the vast majority return to suffering with the added danger of risking their lives. If the SA government is able to rally water provision, extra staffing posts and more classrooms to respond to COVID, this begs the question as to why these urgent needs in schools were not addressed before. These needs amongst schools are not new, and their effects on meaningful teaching and learning will persist long after COVID subsides.
Material conditions of schools on the ground
Enough rooms with (the right) teachers in them
The need for physical distancing during the COVID pandemic has placed a firm spotlight on overcrowding. Far from being a mere function of adequate space, overcrowding is about how learners and teachers are also distributed within that space given curriculum requirements, teacher subject specialisms and learner electives, all of which converge into real class sizes. Classrooms are over-capacity even with the maximum number of 40 learners suggested (a policy that predates COVID and has not been adjusted in the face of physical distancing requirements). Most schools still suffer inherited apartheid architecture, where ‘adequate space’ was differentiated by race: not all classrooms have the same number of square metres, and in many, maintaining adequate physical distance for COVID is impossible even with 30 learners.
There is also the issue of how many learners remain unplaced in schools at all, with classroom shortages afflicting the most densely populated areas of Gauteng and the Western Cape where COVID is most rampant. Many schools have already converted halls, staff-rooms and libraries into classroom space and have no more space to divide classes. Even with phasing-in of learners, what teaching spaces are available will be rapidly filled by group subdivisions necessary to sustain physical distancing.
Another unconsidered aspect of the real class size necessary to enact adequate virus protection measures is that of teacher provision. The department mentions the creation of additional posts to reduce class sizes to 40 (woefully inadequate given spatial constraints), but makes no mention of where these teachers will be sourced (especially for scarce areas such as SP/FET Mathematics/Maths Literacy and indigenous language Foundation Phase teachers), or what budgetary allowance has been made under the special regulations and stimulus packages described by the President for teacher post provisioning. There is also absolutely no mention as to what will happen to these additional teachers once the COVID moment is over. In truth, these additional rooms and teachers have been needed for a long time, pandemic or no, and such measures should not be seen as a temporary concern.
A further ill-considered aspect of the phased-in approach to reopening schools is that of timetabling. Every new grade reintegrated is going to require schools to redo their entire school timetable, with new divisions of subject-grade groups. This assumption that timetables can be viably produced with reduced staff also makes assumptions about appropriately trained teachers being present and able: timetabling for smaller schools is inherently harder due to less elasticity in personnel and subject-area expertise. It is exactly this knot of personnel, spaces, curriculum and learners that causes overcrowding, and these interactions do not disappear because of COVID, nor are they addressed by extra classrooms and extra unspecified teachers without consideration of curriculum permutations and learner enrolment profiles.
An example: if a Geography Grade 12 teacher teaches a class of 60 normally, this class will need to be split up into at least 2 classes of 30, or preferably 3 classes of 20 if physical distancing is to be adhered to inside of lesson time. What was one lesson in a teacher’s workload becomes two, or ideally three, lesson units. Leaving non-arbitrary issues of labour relations aside with this ballooning of workload, such division of class-lesson units into finer granularity assumes the presence of sufficient teachers to cover these classes, who are not only familiar with the required subject/grade curriculum, but also able to implemented the ‘pared down’ form of the curriculum required under the DBE’s proposals.
Under the phasing-in plan, this process must be repeated every 2 weeks. Given that the majority of SA schools struggling to design and implement ONE STABLE school timetable under normal conditions, we suggest that this expectation is not reasonable every fortnight, even when (marginal, diminishing) elasticities in staffing and space are available while schools are not at full capacity. Even so, the concerns outlined here also do not begin to unpick the complexity of what happens should schools be forced to shut again at a later date in infection hotspot areas, and what effects this might have on school organisation.
The DBE states several enormous pre-conditions as ‘non-negotiable’ for the reopening of schools, including the replacement of all pit latrines with mobile facilities and the provision of mobile classrooms to deal with ‘overcrowding as a temporary measure’. We say this is unacceptable: if mobile classrooms can be provided to alleviate overcrowded conditions which plague the majority of schools, then these should be at minimum permanent and not limited to the pandemic’s duration. It is also baffling how these provisions of facilities, for which multiple civil rights and social justice organisations have campaigned for years, will suddenly materialise.
Pit latrines represent only the most severe conditions in which learners and teachers must relieve themselves and as such, are hardly a standard by which to measure progress. We should not forget that in several urban township schools, school toilets are in a state of disrepair, do not always include basic equipment such as sanitary bins, lack sufficient toilet paper, soap and disinfectants. We might somehow manage to replace all pit-latrines, only to be left with still many schools where learners are exposed to unhygienic spaces and a loss of dignity, if not a loss of life.
Though the COVID crisis requires significant adaptations to scheduled activities, our planning around this issue needs to be cognizant of delivery constraints. Before we propose reopening schools across the country, we need to ensure we have robust logistical processes in place to ensure that these interventions are not poorly implemented, as failure in these areas could lead to deaths.
The department needs to make clear what plans are in place to ensure the delivery of personal protective equipment to all the +/- 23 000 public schools which will be affected by the proposed re-opening. Furthermore, ensuring that safe scholar transport is available for grade 12s and grade 7s, while the rest of the country is still experiencing level 4 restrictions, is no easy task. The details of how this proposed rollout is expected to take place both with those who traditionally use school buses, but also for those who use other modes of transport to get to school need to be made clear. It is worth noting that community violence is still a reality during shut-down, and that learners should not be put in a position of having to practice physical distancing at risk to their safety. Lastly, though temperature screening and testing of learners with high-temperatures is a step towards maintaining school safety, ensuring that teachers at all schools have the equipment to do this, and that procedures for doing so have been clearly laid out requires careful planning and strong communication (See ‘Integrating with COVID response’).
To date, it has been very difficult to ensure that schools receive all the necessary resources they need for educational activities, and that educational staff are fully briefed on how to administer new systems. It is unlikely that the department’s ability to roll out a new system has significantly improved in the past few months, and so we should be careful of assuming that all the suggested interventions will roll out as expected.
Policy enactment assumptions
The proposals shared with the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee is indicative of a common policy approach in South African education that has been critiqued at length but which is no less relevant during the pandemic. This concern is in particular the assumption that policy is enacted by mandate top-down, with all levels and layers of the system both capacitated and informed to implement what Pretoria envisages.
Most, if not all, of the changes described will fall to the district officials and Senior Management Teams of schools. Ensuring all education staff are clear on new roles and responsibilities, as well as confident of what this means in their specific context, is critical if the measures outlined are to be met in any shape or form. Akukho qili linokuzikhotha emhlana (no one is so smart they can lick their own back). The more changes in routines, procedures and arrangements required in a limited period of time, the less likely these are to be enacted as intended without cooperation and consultation with ground level staff.
In addition, If we hold to the ideals of participatory democracy, we must also critically reflect on the policy-making process and how the vital contributions of learners and teachers (those who are most affected) and parents (whose children we attempt to govern) may be sought and incorporated. What does it signal when policy-makers proceed with debate and dialogue in a fashion that does not include those at the grass roots, while parents and teachers express anxiety about the safety and security of their children and learners? Will we unleash ‘the might of the state’ upon concerned parents who refuse to send their children because of the conditions in which schooling takes place? These dilemmas are being discussed on community radios and in the media, but the DBE has made no mention of how these concerns will be addressed.
Echoing Friedman’s observations about the insiders who govern and the outsiders who are governed, there is little in the presentation offered by the DBE to indicate a genuine desire to include street-level bureaucrats or parents and learners in decision-making processes regarding school openings. As with other realms of governance over the past seven weeks, the cooperation of the public is critical to any COVID response if it is to be successful.
Fair, feasible assessments
It is hard to imagine what fair and feasible assessments will look like after so much disruption to the academic year, when a few learners have continued apace with the curriculum online from the comfort of well-resourced homes, while many have been in dire need of basic necessities such as food and shelter since the pandemic hit South Africa.
This is notwithstanding the great inequalities already present in the system pre-COVID where students are assessed in languages with which they are unfamiliar, textbooks are only available in English and Afrikaans, and curriculum coverage is an enormous challenge in the vast majority of schools. It is unconscionable that the full Grade 12 curriculum will be appropriately covered, especially in light of the uncertainty that awaits as the pandemic plays out over the coming months. The examinations set for the NSC at the beginning of 2020 are no longer viable or fair.
But there is no clarity from the Department as to how curriculum for assessment will be adjusted and what the effects of this will be on high stakes exams such as the National Senior Certificate. Given the pressure both learners and teachers experience for these assessments, this uncertainty can only foster anxiety and strain.
Integrating with COVID response
Our final area of concern regards the integration of what is suggested as COVID containment measures in schools and how this relates to the broader epidemic management process. It is unclear if testing at the scale suggested is viable. Screening methods of the type presented by the DBE (such as temperature checking) are known to be ineffective, especially in light of how many COVID patients are asymptomatic. Given the age profile of those afflicted by the virus, it is likely children will be asymptomatic carriers. However, many of the teaching corps are amongst the most vulnerable, either over 50 years of age or with underlying conditions such as diabetes, TB, HIV and heart disease. The psycho-social support outlined by the DBE is woefully inadequate to provide support for teachers and learners’ anxiety and other concerns as suggested. Again, this is indicative of an ignorance at high levels of resource constraints and burdens of care on the ground.
It is also unclear what will happen to schools in viral hotspots, whether they will be forced to reclose, what will happen to their feeding schemes when this happens, and how they will then reopen again when local cases subside. To open schools only to have to close them again is more disastrous than keeping them closed until more specific plans are in place, and the logistical and material constraints on safe and just schooling have been addressed in anticipation of schools opening, rather than after the fact.
Returning to unequal arrangements
There is an unfortunate reality that we need to confront head-on: it concerns the lofty promises made when presenting schools as the great leveler of society. Schools, though they do facilitate social mobility for some, tend to come up short for the vast majority of learners who have no other choice but to go to school in one of the Q1-3 (no-fee) schools, or to fee-deprived Q4 and Q5 schools, which serve the vast majority of the poor and marginalised.
Such learners are expected to perform despite having to do so within the context and conditions already described (failing infrastructure, under-staffing, under-resourcing, in an unfamiliar language, without having had breakfast, in the context of community violence and in spaces where there is rampant unemployment of primary caregivers). They often come up short, and are reminded of “their” failures each year when the media discusses the annual Grade 12 results. Learners and the teachers are called upon to assume total responsibility for the great disappointment that stems from our unequal and bifurcated education system that achieves precisely what it is able to when it is grossly under-funded.
When this unfortunate situation is the reality of the majority of school goers, it is necessary that we ask where the haste comes from for wanting to send learners and teachers back to this place of broken promises, of symbolic and sometimes also physical violence, at this time when we are not adequately prepared for a threat we cannot see, the Sars-Cov2 virus. So if learners are “missing out” on anything, perhaps it may only be that they are missing out on partaking in the illusion that schools–in their existing state–will pave the road for their future.
This is not a moment for policy-making that ignores realities and longstanding social injustices. What is planned for our schools needs to be finely in tune with ground-level conditions, where material requirements for physical distancing and just schooling provision are provided prior to opening schools, and not ‘on the fly’ once some learners and teachers have already returned. Schools need to be supported to respond to their unique situations as they unfold, and reopening education institutions should be delayed until it is clear that they will be able to open with minimal risk to learners and staff.
Schooling staff shouldn’t be seen as workers to be instructed, but as collaborators in designing appropriate local solutions to their own conditions to protect themselves and their learners, and provided with the materials and resources they need to enact these solutions.
We can take steps in this crisis to move towards more equitable schooling. We call on the Department of Basic Education to adopt a pro-poor strategy and to consider using the remainder of this school year to:
- Address the infrastructural problems that make a return impossible without risking the health and safety of learners, teachers and support staff, providing detailed status updates on the progress of this per district, circuit and school.
- Allocate the additional resources necessary and restructure budgets in such a way that the necessary staff (teachers and non-teaching staff) can be drafted into the system in order to arrange the smaller class sizes that are needed, both for physical distancing and for optimal learning. Such additional staff have been required before the present crisis and will continue to be needed after the crisis.
- To relieve the anxiety of parents and learners about cramming the academic year into fewer months and undertaking formal studies under crisis conditions. To instead consider how learners could be supported through informal learning from home strategies that are not tied to assessment, that are contextually relevant and engage key concepts and ideas in subject areas.
- To enact structural social justice across deep inequalities in our system, simultaneously securing teachers’ work and providing financial relief to parents, by abolishing school fees and integrating SGB-paid staff into public schools. This is in line with multiple policy recommendations on SA basic education in the past (e.g. OECD, 2008) and dismantles the apparatus by which some schools have drawn on private supplementation to resource their own schools where others cannot.
- To above all else, prioritise life and health, and delay school reopening until such time that greater knowledge about the virus is available. Any attempt to reopen even before we have reached projected ‘peaks’ would be irresponsible. The above points should therefore be considered as preparatory measures in order to gear schools for such a time when it is safer to return to school.
The C19 People’s Coalition ECD and Basic Education sub-group
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