Schooling during COVID-19 Lockdown: update with Deputy Minister

Basic Education

29 April 2020
Chairperson: Ms B Mbinqo-Gigaba (ANC) & Mr M Nchabeleng (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

Video: Joint Meeting:PC on Basic Education and SE on Education & Sports, Arts & Culture 29 April 2020
Audio: Status of Schooling during COVID-19 Lockdown: Department briefing

COVID-19: Regulations and Guidelines
Disaster Management Act 57 of 2002

A joint meeting of the Portfolio Committee on Basic Education, and the Select Committee on Education and Technology, Sports, Arts and Culture, heard that schooling is to start incrementally.
The Department of Basic Education (DBE) told the committees that it plans to start schooling from 18 May (according to the current plan) with Grade 12 and Grade 7 as they are the exit grades and also have fewer numbers. Grade 11 and Grade 6 will follow two weeks later, followed by Grade 10 and Grade 5. Grade 9 and Grade 4 will follow, then Grade 8 and Grade 3 on 1 July, Grade 2 and Grade 1, and finally Grade R. This will allow the country to get ready and most likely also lead the country moving to a lower alert level in the COVID-19 lockdown. These dates are subject to guidance by the parliamentary committees.
The Committees heard that the June rewrite examinations for Grade 12 have been cancelled and will now occur together with the annual National Senior Certificate (NSC) examinations at the end of the year. This has led to a large increase in the number of candidates that will sit for these exams, which in turn will lead to the release of the 2020 NSC results being postponed possibly until the third week in January 2021.
The June examinations for other grades will also not happen as that period will be used for schooling. The winter school holidays in June will be reduced to one week and the spring vacation in September will be reduced to a long weekend.
Overall, the Committee commended the Department for its efforts in getting the sector ready for the start of schooling. This includes providing masks to learners in quintiles 1 to 3 schools and a basic sanitation and hygiene package to all teachers, mobile facilities to replace pit latrines, cleaners, screening, additional teaching posts (as no classes should have more than 40 learners), additional substitute posts, provision of mobile classrooms to deal with overcrowding as a temporary measure, and incubation camps for progressed and weaker learners, especially in Grade 12.

Members were very cautious about the return to school and raised concerns about the original 6 May return date; school nutrition, learner transport; infrastructure; overcrowding; and connectivity in rural areas. They also pointed out that there are inequalities within provinces, with a Member relaying concerns from communities within the Western Cape.

The Deputy Minister of Basic Education, said the curriculum for all grades, except Grade 12, will be reworked. All grades will cover only strategic topics to have knowledge of the content. Grade 12 papers are already set so extra effort will be put in. The phasing in of schooling is an inter-departmental project; not only the DBE, but also the Departments of Health, Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation, and Social Development are involved. This meeting was to get guidance from the Committees, and the plan is not cast in stone.

Meeting report

Ms B Mbinqo-Gigaba (ANC), Portfolio Chairperson, opened the virtual joint meeting. The Minister was unable to attend as she was at a National Command Council meeting.

Mr M Nchabeleng (ANC), Select Committee Chairperson, stated that the country is under distress, with COVID-19 impacting negatively on communities, families, and society as a whole. He could see from TV and social media posts that there was “a worry about the future of our children, and the education of our children in the country”. It was hoped that the team giving the briefing would come up with a way forward with the new programme so that the Department could move forward.

The Department of Basic Education attendees included Deputy Minister Reginah Mhaule; Mr Hubert Mweli, DBE Director General; Mr Paddy Padayachee, DDG: Planning, Information and Assessments; Ms Simone Geyer, DDG: Planning and Delivery Oversight Unit; Ms Mataole Ramohapi, Director in Office of Director General; Mr L Mahada, Parliamentary Liaison Officer; Advisor to the Minister [name unclear 0:12:15.0]; Dr Granville Whittle, DDG: Educational Enrichment Services; Mr Patrick Khunoe, DBE CFO; Dr Mamiki Maboya, DDG: Curriculum Policy, Support & Monitoring, and Mr Shiloh Naiken, Project Executive: National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT).

COVID19 Basic Education Sector Plan
Deputy Minister Reginah Mhaule noted that schools had been closed from 18 March 2020. The Department had drawn up a plan that will aim at bringing learners back to school, while adhering to the lockdown regulations. The Department needs to protect lives, and at the same time, it needs to protect the academic year. The plan presented in today’s meeting is a product of the Department meeting held with MECs from all nine provinces. Yesterday (Tuesday 28 April), the Department presented the same plan to the social cluster. Today, the Minister will present the plan to Cabinet.

Mr Hubert Mweli, DBE Director-General, gave the presentation which covered the international experience; size and shape of the sector; lockdown regulations; pillars of the sector plan and the risk adjusted strategy.

Mr Mweli reiterated that the plan had been subjected to an extensive consultation process. The most recent consultation meetings were yesterday. Part of the reason that the Minister did not open schools on Monday was that a special request was made. The decisions taken on Sunday remain in place.

Mr Mweli showed a timeline of the first 1 million cases of COVID-19 from the journal Nature as at 3 April 2020. South Africa took a decision to declare a national disaster, and the National Command Council created regulations which limit citizen movements to prevent the spread of the virus. He used the visual metaphor of burning trees and bushes to say that the Department now knows from Prof Salim Abdool Karim that the virus can spread uncontrollably if left unchecked. The lockdown was intended to assist medical practitioners with pre-screening, testing and tracing.

As the President said, SA could not remain in lockdown. The lockdown is important to stop the spread of the virus but it has also stopped economic activity. There is a “choice” of either dying from the virus, or dying from poverty and hunger if the lockdown is continued. Thus, government is gradual lifting the lockdown.

He discussed the international experience of schools and COVID-19. Critics might ask why the Department is looking so far? For example, why look at Taiwan, Sweden, or Denmark? The reason for looking at other countries was that other countries have gone through what South Africa is starting to go through. Although very little is known when it comes to schooling and COVID-19, “very interesting information is beginning to emerge”. Examples of experiences with schooling and COVID-19 included Taiwan, China, Denmark, Singapore. These countries had varying measures in place (pg. 11). The journal Lancet had published information about schools and COVID-19. UNESCO and the WHO also gathered information on schools and COVID-19. In the UK, in the case of a 60% increase in the virus, schools would have only contributed to about 3% of that increase. If one looks at countries such as France and Sweden, one could see that the contributions of schools to the spread of the virus is “almost insignificant”.

The Department’s planning needed to take into account the magnitude of the education sector, so that interventions take into account the number of learners, educators, and schools it has (pp. 14-15).

Mr Mweli listed the following lockdown regulations:
• Aims to stop the spread of the COVID 19 virus and minimize the infections
• Anyone found in violation of the regulations will be fined or imprisoned
• No person suspected of virus may refuse medical examination, treatment, isolation or quarantine
• Movement has been restricted, only if a close family member dies can you travel to the funeral and only 50 may attend
• No alcohol and cigarettes sold
• Schools closed until further notice after the lockdown
• Fake news a crime
• No public gatherings
• Emergency procurement policy for COVID 19 to assist all departments
• Amendments introduced to relax transport rules for taxis, essentials for babies and movement of children of divorced couples with shared custody (pg. 17).

He presented the “Pillars of the Sector Plan”. The Guidelines on Social Distancing (pg. 19) are as follows:
• Physical distances in classrooms includes not more than two learners sharing desks
• No hugging, handshaking and direct contact must be avoided
• Cloth masks to be worn by learners and teachers at all times
• No mass public events All sports matches, choral practices and festivals, Eisteddfods are not permitted
• Extra classes should be arranged in small groups that maintain social distancing

The “Social Distancing Implications” were divided into two categories:
- Infrastructure and Furniture
• Sanitize classroom prior to start of school day
• Sanitize hands on entering of classroom
• Limit movement of learners between classes
• No clustering of desks in classrooms

- Transport
• Work with Department of Transport to ensure buses are sanitized prior to start of trip
• Sanitize hands on entering of bus
• Manage distance between learners in bus
• Compulsory wearing of masks throughout the school day, starting before boarding transport
Transport provided by parents would have to ensure that COVID-19 regulations are adhered to.

A map noted the locations of schools in urgent need of water and sanitation, with KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape having the most schools, followed by Limpopo, Mpumalanga and the other provinces except the Western Cape does not have such schools. A total of 3 475 schools require assistance with an emergency water supply. The breakdown of provincial requests showed that 1 000 schools requested boreholes, while about 2 500 requested water tanks, pipes and taps. The Department is working with the Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation (DHSWS) to deliver over 7 000 tanks in a period of two weeks. Half of the tanks could be delivered in a week’s time if deliveries are conducted through Rand Water (the implementing agent). The DBE CFO, Mr van der Westhuizen and his colleagues met with the implementing agent and DHSWS senior officials to finalise the arrangements yesterday. The DHSWS DG and Mr Mweli would be getting the report on that meeting later today.

Mr Mweli explained that a “basic and essential hygiene and sanitation package" has been developed, and provinces are procuring items. These include cleaning and disinfection materials, PPE, sanitizers, soap, gloves, cloth masks and thermometers. DBE has provided guidelines for schools on maintaining hygiene during the COVID-19 pandemic including the use of personal protective equipment [PPE], and the principles of infection prevention and control. DBE is working with the Department of Health (DoH) and National Treasury’s Office of the Chief Procurement Officer. The list of COVID-19 cleaning, disinfection and PPE essentials has been drawn up. DBE met with provinces this morning (Tuesday 28 April). In one-on-one meetings with provinces, DBE checked provinces’ state of readiness in the procurement of COVID-19 essentials. DBE would be providing every learner with two cloth masks for quintile 1 up to quintile 4 schools. To start, DBE would be covering quintiles 1 to 3. Deaf learners, who would need to sign in the process of learning, would be provided with masks with a clear panel on the front.

The procurement of COVID-19 essentials has been a centralised process through the Office of the Chief Procurement Officer with DBE working with National Treasury and the provinces to ensure the essentials are procured. All provinces have placed procurement orders. North West indicated this morning that it has received some of the consignments.

Temperature screening will be done in morning when people arrive. DoH will be training those who are screening people. Temperatures will be taken on a daily basis. As with government buildings, one would only be able to enter a school if they had been cleared by the screening. Learners or staff members that present with raised temperature will be considered for isolation and testing and be referred to health practitioners, who would determine if people need to be tested or not.

The “Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for the Containment and Management of COVID-19 for Childcare Facilities, Schools and School Communities" (consulted with DoH and provinces) provide guidelines for all administrators on the steps to be taken to prevent the spread and manage cases of COVID-19. This includes:
• Guidance for childcare facilities and schools on preventing the of spread of COVID-19
• Role of childcare facilities and schools in responding to COVID 19
• Management of COVID 19 Cases in a Childcare facility or School
• Guidelines for Heads of Departments and Supervisors on COVID 19 Procedure for employees
• Management and Monitoring of absenteeism
• Learner Transport measures
• Closure of a unit/component/office/department if an employee tests positive for COVID-19
• How to clean education establishments where learners/staff or others have suspected/confirmed COVID-19

The SOPs have been evolving over time; provinces have made provision for stakeholders such as school governing bodies (SGBs) to make comments, so that when schools are re-opened, the SOPs will be a document that will provide clear direction on what should be happening every step of the way.

Orientation and training is currently rolling out in the provinces. Some provinces have started with virtual training. There are 144 teacher training centres across the country, and centres are more prevalent in some provinces than in others. If officials and learners have a laptop, then virtual training can be done from home or in an office. DBE is providing training materials for learners, teaching staff and non-teaching staff.

The draft amended school calendar, depending on what the Minister will announce, and based on the decisions of Sunday, the dates on the slide are bound to change. The Department had originally planned to open schools on 4 May 2020 for teachers, and 6 May 2020 for learners. “The grades will be phased in starting with Grades 7 and 12. The lost school days will be recovered by shortening the June holidays to 5 days and the September holidays to a long weekend in order to make up these days. The 4th term will also be lengthened to close on 9 December 2020 for learners and 11 December 2020 for teachers” (pg. 30).

The Curriculum Recovery Framework will be guided by nine principles (pg. 31). DBE has had occasions to implement this framework in places such as Olifantshoek in the Northern Cape, and Merafong in Carltonville. There are other examples around the country, particularly for Grade 12 learners, where DBE has a history of using these measures to recover the curriculum. The strategy for the curriculum review includes:

• Curriculum reorganization and trimming (except for Grade 12);
• Annual teaching plans amended for each grade and each subject;
• Fundamental skills and concepts for each grade will be retained;
• Content in Life Orientation will address personal hygiene, self-study skills, emotional/ psychological trauma;
• Every lesson should contribute five minutes to teaching awareness on COVID-19.

Just as with HIV/AIDS awareness-raising, so should there be COVID-19 awareness-raising in schools.

The phasing-in approach for schools came with tentative dates. The order of phasing in would be: Grades 7 and 12 (which are “exit grades”); Grades 11 and 6; Grades 10 and 5; Grades 9 and 4; Grades 8 and 3; Grades 2 and 1; and finally Grade R. Special care centres and schools for learners with severe intellectual disabilities are also included in the phasing-in approach. The older learners in primary schools and high schools – Grades 7 and 12 respectively – could help to orientate younger learners. There will be two weeks between each phase; hopefully, the country will move to Level 3 or 2 over time. Having the fewest number of learners on campus at a time helps to limit the risk in terms of the number of learners that schools will have to deal with. Before learners start arriving, school management will return, starting with the principal, and then the teachers.

Implications For Examinations:
a) Grade 12 will be expected to write the set fully fledged examinations, based on covering the entire curriculum and other grades will be given a reworked curriculum and assessed on 80%
b) May/June Exams for the National Senior Certificate (Grade 12) will be combined with the October / November exams and rescheduled for November/December 2020
c) Marking of examination scripts will run up to end of December 2020
d) Moderation, standardisation and release of the results will be moved to mid/end of January 2021
e) School-Based Assessment (SBA) will have to be calculated minus the May/June exams
f) Grade 12 will still write preparatory examinations in September
g) The November/December examination timetable will have to be amended accordingly.

Psychosocial support for learners, educators and officials would be provided through the Departments of Social Development and Health. DBE had looked at different levels of its system, including the epicentres in six metros. Restrictions would vary according to the Risk Adjusted Strategy already announced. Restrictions would vary from national to provincial, to district, to local level. Therefore, DBE was getting ready to ensure that whatever the eventuality up to school level and district level, school-based and district-based teams would deal with emotional and psychological trauma. DBE would be working with NGOs; an example is LoveLife, which has worked in the education space, and faith-based organisations.

With the Quality Learning and Teaching Campaign (QLTC), DBE will be driving the Back to School Campaign. As seen in other countries, parents might be reluctant to release their children to go back to school. The Department would deal with the understandable anxiety and fear of going back to school.  School management would be involved in ensuring schools met the requirements necessary for re-opening. If a school did not meet the requirements on the list (a team of DBE lawyers is busy working out the list), and if the Department did not put measures in place to ensure schools were safe, it could be “litigated left, right and centre”. DBE was making sure that it did not leave anything to chance in this case.

Its communication strategy would need to manage the spread of fake news as this has been “rampant” on social media. Mr Mweli had addressed the communication team on such matters, and he believed that collectively, the Department was ready to drive the message of what government is intending to do, and also to deal with the challenge of fake news.

Mr Mweli stated that with “ICT as the new normal”, the landscape of the education sector “has changed forever”. There would need to be large investments in teaching and learning online; for example, getting devices to teachers, learners, and officials to facilitate digital learning. Business processes would also need to be changed. DBE has established seven guiding principles that will drive ICT matters with one committee looking at e-governance and e-learning.

Non-negotiables (Preconditions) for the Re-opening of Schools would be as follows:
1. COVID 19 essentials (Basic Sanitation Hygiene Package)
2. Water Sanitation (Mobile facilities to replace pit latrines)
3. Cleaners (EPWP)
4. Screeners (EPWP) [parents are encouraged to screen their children at home using a thermometer]
5. Additional teaching posts to deal with overcrowding (No class should have more than 40 learners)
6. Additional substitute posts to replace staff due to long illness
7. Provision of mobile classrooms to deal with overcrowding as temporary measure
8. Incubation Camps for progressed and weaker learners (Grade 12) to succeed academically.

Mr Mweli noted that on 1 May the country would move to Level 4 according to the Risk-Adjusted Strategy. DBE’s intention is to contribute to ensuring that progressively, the country moves ideally to Level 1. He reiterated that the medical evidence and research done so far by bodies such as UNESCO and the WHO indicate that the contribution that schooling makes to the spread of the virus is “very small”. The danger might be the possibility of learners being infected by adults, such as teachers. Taking that into account, DBE will put “all reasonable measures in place”, including the provision of COVID-19 essentials. Some teachers would be commuting from one province to another, some from one district to another, and from one local municipality to another. He had seen amendments to cover this in the regulations being considered today (Wednesday 29 April 2020) by the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC).

The preconditions for resuming activity are:
• Identification and protection of vulnerable learners and employees [parents need to be aware of underlying conditions their children have such as asthma and diabetes]
• Safe transport for learners and employees
• Screening of learners and employees on entering institutions and the workplace
• Prevention of viral spread in the workplace
• Cleaning of surfaces and shared equipment
• Good ventilation
• Managing sick learners and employees.

Learners with underlying conditions will be advised to learn from home. DBE will be working with the Association for Home Education to ensure that those learners are supported, and to ensure that they are retained in the system.

There are also rules of operation for schools (pg. 47) that include workplace protocols such as disease surveillance and preventing the spread of infection. DBE has many teachers above 60. Such workers should be offered the option to work from home, or to remain on leave with full pay. DBE is making full provision for cloth masks, which must be worn by all employees and learners.

Mr Mweli noted that he was unable to stay for the duration of the discussion as he had to join the Minister, and present to the National Coronavirus Command Council.

The Chairperson thanked the Director General for the presentation.

Ms S Gangat suggested writing questions in the chat box present on screen.

Mr M Nchabeleng (ANC) also suggested written questions could be emailed to the committee secretaries, after which DBE would respond in writing to Members; alternatively, questions could be answered in the next meeting. He went on to comment that South Africa should “not build structures we don’t need”. He suggested looking at rotation in schools. He used the example of Mozambique, where schools start at 7 AM and end at 7 PM; children attend school in shifts. For example, grade 3 would have three or four classes in one day. DBE could use churches or schools that were closed some years ago because of [low] numbers of students.

Ms M Sukers (ACDP) commented that there are schools in poor communities that fall within quintiles 4 and 5. The Portfolio Committee had brought this up with the Deputy Minister in previous meetings. She knows that the Western Cape provincial government had made an application for those schools to be moved to quintile 3. She asked if DBE was going to make the PPE provision for schools as the DG had indicated that the PPE provision was for quintiles 1 to 3. She was concerned about the schools in poor communities assessed as quintiles 4 and 5. The DG had referred to international examples such as schools in Sweden; South Africa’s situation is very different. The concern here in South Africa is that the spread of COVID-19 will escalate, specifically because children and parents are living with diseases that compromise their immune system such as HIV and TB. Has DBE taken that into consideration as these children who are at risk, would now return to school and could be exposed. Are the school return dates in the presentation set, or is DBE reviewing those dates? There is confusion over when school is actually starting.

Mr P Moroatshehla (ANC) commented that “we can’t afford to miss this; the only way we can miss this is if we miss the timing”. The role of the Committee is to advise the Minister and Department on the timing of going back to school. It was very important to discuss how to address overcrowding in schools, which is a persistent issue. How will DBE address ablution facilities and water provision at schools? Will the implementation of sanitation solutions be possible in deep rural schools?

Dr S Thembekwayo (EFF) noted that nearly 200 schools had been burgled or vandalized, and some of them had been set alight. How far is DBE with repairs of schools that had been burgled, if school needs to start? The Committee had not received an update on the improvement of 183 schools, especially when considering the DG said there would be provision of 400 mobile school rooms. Where would these be distributed? She said digital transformation required accessibility and affordability of digital devices by learners and educators, especially those in remote rural areas. Connectivity is also a problem – what is DBE ready to provide in terms of connectivity for all learners? There are very poor learners dependent on the national school nutrition scheme. Nothing had been said about the provision of food parcels to the families of those learners. She asked how many psychologists or social workers would be made available to each school during this period. It was very important for the Department to provide the Committee with such information. What is going to happen to the kids attending schools that do not meet the requirements? Is DBE ready to supply all learners so they will be able to access whatever information is provided?

Ms N Tarabella-Marchesi (DA) pointed out that two learners sitting at a desk in a classroom would contravene the regulations for a 1.2 m distance between persons. How would the Department handle that? The 40 learners in a classroom is over and above the requirements according to the regulations. Why has DBE opted for that, and what is the position of DoH on this? Has DBE received approval to go ahead with that? Learners from Grade R to Grade 4 would be receiving masks – but Grades 12 and 7 learners are going to school from 6 May. Will those learners be receiving masks as well? What are the arrangements for this?

Learners at most school have not received any education but there are schools that have been teaching using online resources such as WhatsApp groups. Are there clear directives for teachers on distance learning? Are they being equipped with the necessary skills? Are they receiving training on distance learning? How many learners currently have this privilege of WhatsApp or online training, and what is being done to ensure all learners have access to learning online? If one is talking about learners going back to between May and July, then that means some learners are sitting at home. What has been done to ensure that they receive some kind of education? Are these learners provided with data? Some learners would need data. Parents are paying fees currently. For example, some of them paid in January. What happens to those parents – they are paying for the data. What happens to those paying for ECD; when will ECD centres open? Should parents continue to pay fees when learners are not really at school? Can the President perhaps make a determination on that?

Ms C King (DA) asked about school nutrition programme. The Minister said that school nutrition was to be administered by the Department of Social Development (DSD). She asked what processes were followed in DSD taking over school nutrition. Have the regulations on hot food been taken into consideration, because there are many learners who are struggling to access school nutrition. When talking about learner transport, one has to keep in mind that transport providers will need to have PPE available. Will DBE come with a clearance certificate to ensure that transport providers are cleared of having the virus? Will there be a budget for double transport costs, since transport providers cannot have a full contingent of learners in their taxis?
On connectivity and data costs, the language of instruction and learning is “totally different from how a parent would do it”. How will DBE get around that? Will videos be used? Was a proper needs analysis done on how many educators and learners have digital access problems, especially in the rural areas where there is poor connectivity? Are schools really equipped to open? How soon can they open? How feasible will it be for rural schools to open on time in provinces such as Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal?

Ms M Gillion (ANC, Western Cape) noted that COVID-19 will affect provinces unequally. It will compromise the national exams. Now more than ever, the inequality within society is going to "test us as a government” in South Africa. A lot of questions had been raised by Western Cape communities such as Western Cape being the epicentre for COVID-19. Certain challenges within Basic Education that happened before this pandemic lockdown have not been solved such as learner transport, overcrowding in schools, poor infrastructure in this province. She asked the Deputy Minister if she can give the reassurance that the Western Cape is ready for schools to open. We are concerned for the safety of the communities in the Western Cape. The inequalities have come to fore during this lockdown, especially in the Western Cape. Does DBE have a monitoring and evaluation team in place? The Western Cape is the epicentre with a very high rise in infections. Did DBE take this into consideration when planning and does it have everything in place in the Western Cape? Have the pre-lockdown challenges been resolved?

Mr E Siwela (ANC) noted that DBE had procured 400 mobile classrooms to date – how many additional classrooms does the Department need  to cater for all learners? In the event where there will be “platooning” of schools, will transport be provided for learners attending the second session who might leave late at the end of the school day? For the learners who are sharing desks – will furniture be procured for each learner in time for schools opening?

A question was about what would be happening in the ECD sector. When will the ECD sector be included in the timetable? What about after-school curricular activities? What is being made available for those learners who require feeding schemes and child-minding as their parents are going back to work?

Ms S Luthuli (EFF, KwaZulu-Natal) noted that there is fear and anxiety in communities about sending children back to school. There were non-negotiable conditions for reopening schools in the presentation – are schools in the process of being sanitised? The Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) workers will be cleaners and screeners; are such people currently being tested? If those people are not being tested, and schools are reopened, that means that “those people could infect our kids, because we are not sure if they are positive or negative". In KwaZulu-Natal, a lot of schools in rural areas do not have infrastructure in a suitable condition to meet the non-negotiable conditions – what is DBE doing about those schools?

Mr T Malatji (ANC) said that COVID-19 has shown the inequality in this country to be very high. Some learners from privileged backgrounds were catching up via e-learning. The DG mentioned that those using private transportation would be responsible for their own “checking”. Those same learners will be in class with learners using public transport that will be sanitised and checked. Each driver would be wearing gloves and a mask, and the learners in the bus would also be using gloves and a mask. How will DBE monitor private transportation? As a way forward, there should not be any learner using private transport. It must be transportation provided by DBE, so that spread of the virus does not happen. With the school feeding scheme, learners queue when collecting their food. How will DBE manage such queues? The virus has spread in queues. A lot of schools have shortages of staff and security guards. How will DBE ensure that there is a proper social distancing system in place during the queuing?

Mr F du Toit (FF+, Northern Cape) said that DBE books are not available at some schools in the North West. What plan does DBE have for delivering the books to the schools before classes commence?

Mr M Bara (DA, Gauteng) noted that the dates in the presentation were tentative with 6 May as the first date for Grade 12 and 7 learners to go back to school. He was worried about readiness of all the non-negotiables that had to be in place. He thought 6 May was too soon, and too short notice for preparation. Online schooling is currently under way, but he was not sure to what extent rural schools were in keeping with that system. The Committee did not want rural learners to be out of the system. Who will do the monitoring to see that there is compliance? For learner transport which is procured by parents; how will DBE ensure that there is social distancing? Who will monitor if children are in groups of not more than five at schools to comply with social distancing? For him, the presentation did not give confidence to parents to send their kids to school. There was a comparison to Singapore and other countries, who have a smaller population. Singapore is about 2 million people at most, and SA has more than 55 million. How can DBE compare it to such countries? Comparisons should be “apples with apples”.

Ms D Christians (DA, Northern Cape) asked by whom and how often will screening be done at schools. Surely teachers will not be expected to do screening as there is an added risk. The teachers have not received the necessary training to do the training. Does DBE think that the provinces have the capacity to send trained healthcare staff to each school every single day, to do the necessary screening? Can such expertise be had per province, and per school? What is the Department’s plan for vandalised schools – will these schools be ready for learners and staff to return to teaching and learning? If these schools are not ready, this poses an added risk to all involved at those schools.

Mr S Ngcobo (IFP) stated that the DG was “trying to convince us that it’s the right thing to do to open schools the schools now so we do not lose time”. He agreed that time is of the essence, but if given the choice between time and lives, he would insist that it is “better to have lives than time”. DBE has a duty to ensure that the correct thing happens. On the space for social distancing: DBE seems to have a lot of capacity, which he doubted it had. Social distancing “is going to be a problem – South Africa has classes of 50 learners; most of them are above that number. If one divides that according to social distancing rules, then it gives one more than three classes. DBE will not have that. The Department is “exposing the country to a serious risk”. It has to prepare for that risk when it happens. Immediately, the children go back to school, and “these nice stories will definitely not happen”. When it comes to teachers, having observed social distancing, from where will the teachers come? DBE “does not have them”. Will the Department try to convince retired teachers to play a role? This is “a serious matter”. There are schools paying school fees – is the Department going to ensure that under these circumstances, all those learners will be catered for, because no-one will be expected to have money in this serious pandemic. The dates were not clear – when is schooling actually starting? On transport: Unless there is transport for learners everywhere, in particular the rural schools, “we are heading for a serious disaster”. Learners are transported by vans in rural areas; there will be no social distancing. He stated that it is “doubtful whether we are doing the right thing”.

Ms F Vilakazi asked about nutrition – what will happen to learners who are at home compared to those in school? On vulnerabilities: The majority of our communities are black, led by women, poor; and some of them are sex workers, migrants and domestic workers, who are currently unemployed. How will this plan address the question of equity, specifically for data at home and at schools? On electricity access: A number of communities, particularly in rural areas and townships, are struggling to access electricity at the moment. How will the Department mitigate those factors? How is food going to be distributed to those learners who are at home, and those who are in schools? On gender-based violence (GBV): We have seen during this lockdown that our young girls and women are expected to carry out certain chores; carrying the burden of caring for their loved ones who are sick, who could possibly be COVID-19-positive. How will the Department ensure that those learners are not left behind, and deal with the question of exclusion? On accessibility of learning materials, is it possible to have textbooks listed as essential services?

Ms D van der Walt (DA) asked about the dates set for return to school. She was “nervous” that the provinces are where the implementation of the plans will happen. Could the DG please tell the Committee that all nine provinces are absolutely ready to start next week? If the provinces are not ready, will the Minister announce a small postponement tomorrow? Parents and learners “are very nervous, and very worried that they might get COVID-19”. If the schools are not ready, will they continue? There are currently rules prohibiting travel between provinces and towns – what will happen to teachers and learners visiting their parents at caretakers such as grandparents? What provision was made for that travelling? There was no indication about hostels in the presentation. Several learners in grades 7 and 12, starting next week, will be living in hostels. Some of the teachers will be living in hostels as well. Parents, due to financial constraints, cannot afford the school fees anymore – will the Department look at funding, for example, SGB posts, so that we do not lose teachers? Will the Department look into bringing the payment to schools (normally made in May and November) to now, to assist schools during these tough times? Is the Department working on a SOP document? If so, when will it be ready, when will all provinces have it, and when will the Committee and the general public know what is in it?

Ms van der Walt also asked if the Department could put more emphasis on getting free data for every learner and student. The pandemic “is warning us that we must get our act together in education; we must go back to not more than 40 learners per classroom; we must ensure that our learners have proper desks to sit at, and we must ensure that money meant for infrastructure, water and sanitation is spent appropriately all the time”.

Ms N Adoons (ANC) stated that the presentation was not audible enough. She said that the Members must take themselves seriously; there were Members wearing caps in the meeting, which was “not a proper dress code for meetings”. She noted that the presentation was covering everything that the Department was planning to do and achieve. It was not 100% possible, even before the lockdown; the Department knows that it has infrastructure, nutrition, and transport challenges. The Committee has previously raised concerns with the reports it received from the Department; it interrogated the Department, and went on an oversight visit in Limpopo, where the Committee saw that some schools were not in a good condition. She agreed with a quote at the end of the slideshow which said, “It always seems impossible until it is done”. She was concerned about the non-negotiables – DBE must not bargain with them. If a school is not ready, then the school must not even attempt to open. It must demonstrate to the Committee that it will do a physical verification of schools’ compliance. If the Department does not do that, then it will find itself in a predicament where it puts the lives of young ones, teachers, and non-teaching staff at risk when such people could have been safe at home. Whatever is practised at home is practiced at school; all safety precautions must be practiced, and they must be “on point”. She also wanted clarification on the phasing-in approach, with Grades 7 and 12 resuming classes first – will it be done in all nine provinces? If schools are not ready, then what is the Department’s plan; what will it do to ensure learners are not left behind? Will there be a “plan B” to enable learners to catch up? The Committee must allow the Department to demonstrate to the Committee that that it is ready. DBE must not put lives of innocent young people at risk. DBE must be sure that schools are ready to be reopened.

The Chairperson said that the presentation was sent to Members beforehand. The Committee needed to appreciate the Department’s work. If plans are changing, one would ask that the Department communicates, and ensures that people know what is happening. Everyone is stressed; nobody knew that COVID-19 would stress [the country] as it is doing now. The reality of the matter is that all need to work together. Even if children go back to school, it will not be an easy process. There will be challenges that accompany going back to school. As Members of Parliament, people will need to be on the ground, and to see those challenges to alert the Department.

Deputy Minister Mhaule noted the critical concerns by Members included whether the 6 May return date is realistic; school nutrition, learner transport; infrastructure; overcrowding; and connectivity in rural areas.

She noted that the DG had said that the Department is going to re-work the curriculum, except for Grade 12, because the examination papers are set and ready. For other grades, the Department will look at only strategic topics, but when learners move to the next grade, they should at least have the content of the previous grade. DBE was hoping to get input from Committee Members – it was not presenting a plan that was “cast in stone”. Yesterday, after presenting to the Social Cluster, the Department was told that the date of 6 May was not realistic. The current version of the presentation (which the Deputy Minister had in her possession) shows a changed date, but the principals and SGBs are reporting on 4 May. The SGBs are reporting on this date so that they look at all the things that will be needed for when teachers return. When teachers return, they must come with masks, because the Department does not want to risk lives. The education sector has to protect the academic year, because there are younger children who would want to go to Grade R next year, and Grade R must shift to Grade 1, and so on. But the Department should not compromise lives. Life is more important than an academic year. DBE fully understands this.

On infrastructure: There is overcrowding in most of South Africa’s schools, especially in the big cities. DBE will use a phase-in approach – when only Grade 12s come into secondary schools, it will see how many spaces are left for the next grade. As each grade comes in, the Department will “gather experience”, and improve on all the preparations that it has. It may find that in the areas where it thought it was ready, there is actually a challenge. The Deputy Minister was not saying that the Department would be risking the Grade 12s and Grade 7s – as they come in, they will have sufficient space, no matter how small a school is. If only one grade is coming, then there will be sufficient space. There is the question on the 400 mobile classrooms procured. As of now, the Department cannot say that the 400 mobile classrooms are all that it needs. DBE will be giving mobile classrooms to vandalised schools. The desks that will be used are double desks; the Department will monitor the space at the desks. If a distance of 1.5m is used, then a double desk is big enough to cater for two learners. DoH will assist in sanitising the schools and will also guide DBE to say whether or not a school is ready. The plan is not a “one-size-fits-all” plan. DBE knows that situations differ from province to province – for example, the Western Cape and Gauteng are epicentres of COVID-19. If the situation does not allow for learners to go to school, then the Department cannot tell learners to go to school.

On transport: There is learner transport provided by government. The parent is responsible for the child from home until the bus stop. When the child enters the bus, DBE takes responsibility, and that is why the Department says that every child must enter the bus with a mask on. That mask will be provided by the Department.

The Deputy Minister addressed the mistaken idea that DBE would provide masks from Grade R to Grade 4. In the presentation, the DG actually said that the Department would provide masks from schools in quintile 1 up to quintile3. In quintile 4 and 5 schools, parents will provide masks. Parents in quintiles 4 and 5 are responsible for most of the things that learners need, including transport. The Deputy Minister noted that the parents live in South Africa and they also comply with the COVID-19 regulations. Grade 12s cannot fill a bus – if the bus is full, then the Department will have to provide a second bus for scholar transport. The concerns about shortage of transport and teachers is not an issue when the Grades 7 and 12 are phased in. Those teachers teaching other grades will also come to school.

On teachers not being qualified to screen: The Deputy Minister said that if one goes to a police station, for example, one is screened by a police officer. That police officer is not a health official. DoH will train teachers, and the teachers will be doing screening under the supervision of DoH.

On quintile 4 and 5 schools in poor communities: the school districts in provincial departments of education know of the challenges in each community. If it understands that a school is in quintile 5, but has challenges, then the Department will see how it can help. Those schools who have applied will be approved if these schools meet the requirements for being graded as quintile 1 to 3. It is the government’s responsibility to provide scholar transport for schools in quintiles 1 to 3.

On retired teachers coming in: The COVID-19 regulations said that people who are 60 years old and above should be encouraged to work from home. DBE cannot take retired teachers as it would be putting such people at risk if it said that retired teachers should come back to school. DBE does have teachers who are still unemployed at the ages of 28 to 30 years old. If there is a need, then those younger teachers could come on board.

On the opening of schools: Principals and SGBs are reporting on 4 May to make the schools ready, and to receive COVID-19 sanitisers etc. Teachers will report on 11 May to restructure the timetables and look at various things. Those teachers who will not be teaching at the time will be trained. Grades 12 and 7 will be going to school on 18 May according to the current plan, subject to the plan’s approval. The plan was being presented to the National Command Centre at the time of this meeting (Wednesday 29 April).

On water and sanitation: Both are a big challenge for the Department, because “most of the rural schools do not have water, especially in the Eastern Cape where there is literally no water”. Water is also a challenge in other rural provinces such as KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Limpopo. DBE is working with the Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation. DHSWS is making use of existing boreholes; where there are no boreholes, then it puts in boreholes. In some instances, there is a borehole, but there is no water. In that case, water tankers will be used. DHSWS will provide water, and DBE is working with DHSWS to provide water. DHSWS knows the needs of each school per province and per district. DBE submits the needs of the schools to DHSWS, so that when the latter works on its budget, it knows the schools that must be catered for. The Deputy Minister said that we believe that on the 18 May when learners come to school, every school will have water.

School nutrition has always been a concern. DBE is not saying that school nutrition has been transferred to the Department of Social Development, but DSD is responsible for poor communities and poor families. The families of those children who benefit from school nutrition are clients of the DSD. That is why as the country is in lockdown, those parents and families receive food parcels from DSD and other charity organisations. DSD feeds the same learners who receive school nutrition. DBE cannot say that it will feed learners at home; it does not have the infrastructure to cook food at school, and take it to feed children. What about the parents; they will also be hungry. That is why DBE is working with government - as the President announced - for a six month increase in the child grant. All of those resources are helping poor families.

On ECD (in particular Grade R): When the Department looked at Grade 7 and 12, it did not take Grade R into consideration. DBE thought that Grade R will come in as Grade 1 comes to school. There is the question of who will remain with that Grade R child if the parent has to go to work. DBE “will go back and work on that”, because it had looked at private Grade R facilities. Those ones, if they follow all the guidelines and recommendations of COVID-19, and work together with the Department, check their areas, and monitor their physical distance of children; those facilities would be allowed to operate. DBE needs to look at Grade R being in school. DBE will continue communicating with the Committee on this – that is why it invited the Portfolio and Select Committees to a meeting. DBE is taking the lives of South Africans into consideration.

If one child contracts COVID-19, and comes home to a household of 13 people, for example, then all those 13 people are put in danger. DBE is looking at those circumstances; it is not just forcefully wanting a return to schools. However, it has the responsibility of educating the nation. DBE is not taking the private, online teaching by those who have resources as a ‘continuation of teaching’ because those children who are not connected and do not have those resources, will be left behind. That is why DBE will rework the curriculum, and assess learners based on that. It will not count all the work done by those schools with resources. DBE knows that South Africa is not the same; there are those living in affluent areas and those who live in deep rural areas. DBE cannot disadvantage the children in deep rural areas. DBE cannot say that it will buy tablets for all learners as that will not solve the problem of connectivity. If a child has a tablet, but no data and connectivity, then what will be the use of that?. South Africa’s children need teachers in front of them; there is no device that can replace a teacher. That is why the Department is saying, “Let the children go to school”. But it is not forcing the issue; it is working together with all South Africans; with the Portfolio and the Select Committees, the social cluster, teacher unions, and SGBs. When the plan is approved, then children are going to school on 18 May.

The Chairperson thanked the Deputy Minister. She asked Mr Nchabeleng if there was anything that he wanted to add.

Mr Nchabeleng saluted the “troops deployed in this vicious combat with COVID-19. Let us let the spirit of international solidarity prevail”. He hoped that South Africa would share information on education and development of its children with its neighbours, so that Africa can survive as a region, as part of a continent, and survive as humanity. “Our children are our most valuable asset”. Government will do everything in its power “to ensure that our children and ourselves do not perish in this storm". To the Minister and the team, he said, “We take the call from the Second World War battle cry [2:13.56 - 2:14.01].

The Chairperson noted that there were stakeholders that wanted to participate in the meeting, but it was made clear that the meeting is a normal parliamentary committee meeting so it is only Members of Parliament who take part. She requested that stakeholders send their concerns or questions to the committee secretary. She would then forward the questions to the Department, so that questions will receive a response. She wished the Deputy Minister all the best with the Department’s plans, and all the best with our future that you are leading. If Members of Parliament are so concerned, then what about laypeople? What about a parent who has a child, and who wants to see that child progressing? We need to pray, we need to understand that we shall overcome. We need to understand that this will also pass. She said that the Committee appreciates the work done by the Department, and it is in their prayers.

The meeting was adjourned.


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