The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) has dismissed government’s decision to keep schools closed for all grades, except Grades 7 and 12, until 24 August 2020 as regrettable and unjustifiable.

“The decision means that by 24 August 2020 over 10 million South African children, depending on the grade they are in, will have lost over 50% or 100 scheduled school days as a result of COVID-19 school closures,” says the Commission in a statement.

The Commission says its view on the opening of schools is guided by the evidence provided by a range of researchers that point to the devastating consequences of children not being at school.

These include increases in hunger and malnutrition; poor children are not being screened for diseases which kill thousands of South Africans annually and severely compromise many more, notably TB and HIV and increased risk of child abuse, mental health breakdowns with rising rates of depression and anxiety.

“Poorer children regress significantly in terms of reading and maths skills during extended absence from school,” says the Commission.

The SAHRC has, however, welcomed government’s decision to provide meals to all children who qualify for the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP), which caters for at least nine million children.

 Equal Education’s view

 Equal Education (EE) says it cautiously supports the decision to temporarily close public schools, as the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and the provincial education departments (PEDs) work to address legitimate and serious concerns raised by teachers and learners about some schools being unsafe and inadequately supported to reopen.

“We welcome the confirmation from President Cyril Ramaphosa that the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) will continue to provide food to learners while at home over the next four weeks, to lessen the detrimental impact of school closures on learners. The initial phasing back of only grades 7 and grade 12 learners will relieve some of the pressure on schools, that was brought about by the return of more grades earlier this month.”

Equal Education expands on its view:

The rights group, however, says it remains concerned about the impact of extended school closures on children. “We urge the education departments to respond with absolute urgency and to not squander this opportunity to put crucial safety measures and support structures in place at all schools.

“It is baffling that the DBE has failed to implement a risk-adjusted strategy that is responsive to conditions in schools and communities to help inform the reopening and closing of schools. Furthermore, the DBE’s Standard Operating Procedures have not provided sufficient guidance on the complexities of managing the COVID-19 pandemic in schools.”