Re-opening of schools, distance learning and home schooling, school feeding schemes and related matters: MEC & Department briefing

Adhoc Committee on Covid-19 (WCPP)

08 May 2020
Chairperson: Ms M Wenger (DA)
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Meeting Summary

Video: Ad Hoc Committee on Covid-19, 8 May 2020, 14:00

Ms Debbie Schafer, Western Cape Provincial Minister of Education, said the WCED was feeling the weight on its shoulders. It is an extremely difficult space to be in. While it is very easy to close schools, the reopening of schools poses challenges and many factors and measures must be considered.

The Department of Basic Education (DBE) announced School Management Teams (SMTs), non-teaching, and cleaning staff, are expected to resume duty on 11 May 2020.

Teachers will return on 18 May 2020, while Grade 12 and 7 learners return1 June 2020.

MEC Schafer said some argued the reason for returning to school on 1 June was wise, given the incredible effect on many issues, including the economy. The closed schools impacted people trying to go back to work and people getting the economy going again.  As long as schools are closed the task is a difficult one for people with children. She believed going back on 1 June is a good decision, considering only one grade at a time will go back initially. Proper processes are in place. It will be subject to the availability of PPE equipment.  This itself is a problem for many provinces, including the Western Cape. There is a huge demand on PPE industries worldwide. All things are in place and the return will be feasible.

The Department needs a plan where there is a semblance of normality, while still taking precaution. The Provincial Minister said she engaged with the National Minister, and standard operating procedures (SOP) are being developed. Provinces are all making contributions. The Department hopes it will be ready within the next few days, but nothing is finalised at this point.

Regarding fee exemptions, people can apply at any time if in financial difficulty. Everyone is subject to the same problem. The need for masks alone meant R15 million had to come from somewhere. If schools wish to apply to be a “No Fees” school it can apply, and a process is in place dealing with this. It depends on available funding allowing it to happen.

In other statistics it was revealed, as of 4 May 2020, there has been 82 reported cases of burglary and vandalism in the in the Western Cape schools.

In total 912 988 learners were fed from 8-30 April 2020; with additional donations supporting the scheme with food for cooked meals and care packages.

Meeting report

The Chairperson welcomed Committee Members and the Western Cape Education Department to the meeting. She asked everyone to turn off mics, cameras, and said points of orders must be raised in the chat bar. The Chairperson acknowledged the Department of Education was on a very tricky tightrope between protecting children’s lives and ensuring children could receive education. It was no small task and a heavy burden to say the least.

Ms Debbie Schafer, Western Cape Provincial Minister of Education, said the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) was feeling the weight on its shoulders – it was an extremely difficult space to be in. While it was very easy to close schools, the reopening of schools posed challenges and the Department had to consider many factors and measures. The WCED and Education Departments all over the country found themselves in a very uncertain space. The Provincial Minister used examples of constant timeline changes, and noted difficulties behind planning without being sure what data would reflect after the Command Council makes its final decision.

As a Senior Management Executive, the Provincial Minister and others from the Department firmly believe the WCED has done remarkably during the lockdown. It is not something the Department could anticipate at the beginning of the year. Education, generally, takes a rigorous amount of planning.

The Head of the Western Cape Department of Education (HOD), Mr Brian Schreuder, was also working day and night. The Provincial Minister congratulated and noted appreciation of Dr Peter Beets and his curriculum team, and Mr Clinton Walker and his e-learning team.  This was for putting together some incredible online learning material. The online portal was for learners, parents and teachers to use at home. While teachers were positive about the situation and tried to connect with learners whenever it could, the amount of teaching time lost and the impact on the economy are extremely worrisome. Lives are more important than money, but the situation affects earning capacity later in life. While many people will at times choose to keep the child a grade back, doing it on a national level while an entire new grade must enter the education system poses a serious problem.

Western Cape Education Department (WCED): the reopening of schools, Distance Learning and Home Schooling; School Feeding Schemes and Assistance for Special Needs and Vocational Training Institutions

Mr Schreuder said the presentation dealt with the topics asked of MEC Schafer by the Committee in the briefing. While the lockdown impacted on learners negatively, the Department will survive and recover.

Strategy to support learners during lockdown

  • Sustain the WCED Vision
  • Adapt curriculum and focus on core concepts and competencies
  • Support teachers and parents in providing home teaching and learning

Dates announced by the Department of Basic Education (DBE)

  • School Management Teams (SMTs), non-teaching and cleaning staff are expected to resume duty on the 11th of May 2020.
  • Teachers will return on the 18th of May 2020.
  • Grade 12 and 7 learners on 1 June 2020.

DBE proposed phasing in

  • Adjusted curriculum, based on revised school calendar, will be implemented – expected to be finalised by 15 May 2020.
  • May change as pandemic affects the country or certain provinces/municipalities.

Safety and hygiene packs for schools

  • Hand sanitisers
  • Liquid soaps
  • Face masks

Schooling: Now & going forward

  • Adhere at all times to COVID-19 safety requirements
  • Find appropriate ways to sustain quality teaching for every learner
  • Focus on core subject concepts and competencies per grade


  • As of 4 May 2020, there has been 82 reported cases of burglary and vandalism in the Province.
  • Due to the lockdown, the WCED has added additional day security and doubled night security in schools situated in high risk areas.

Special needs learning: General support and activities

  • Schools are engaging with the Specialised Learner and Educator Support (SLES)  team for curriculum support.
  • Various groups have been created for home learning support – adapted to meet a variety of needs.

Special needs learning: Additional support for various SLES categories

  • Learners with barriers to learning: Guidance to parents regarding monitoring and support.
  • School of Skills: All technical occupational curriculum writers are collating adapted lesson plans and activities for the WCED ePortal.

School feeding during lockdown

  • In total 912 988 learners were fed from 8-30 April 2020
  • An average of 65 213 learners are fed per day in 284 sites

School feeding: Safety measures

  • Practice social distancing. Leaners to queue with spaces of 1.5m in-between.
  • Arrange for adequate supervision at the gates and allow a manageable number of learners into the school at a time. Parents/School Governing Body (SGB) can be requested to help.

School feeding: Donations

Additional donations are supporting the scheme with food for cooked meals and care packages


The Chairperson thanked Mr Schreuder for preparing the presentation. Due to time constraints, Members were given 4 minutes each to ask questions.

Ms L Botha (DA) asked the following:

  •  Considering the rapid spread of the pandemic within the Western Cape, she asked if it is wise for schools to reopen from the 1st June as per the national directive
  • She asked if the National Minister was engaged on this matter, and
  • if the WCED will provide teachers, principals and cleaning staff with any special training on COVID-19 before schools open, and
  • If a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) was already put in place
  • Knowing that many jobs were lost, she asked if the WCED will reopen applications for fee exemptions and if schools can apply to be a “No Fees” School
  • She asked if teachers who are above the age of 60 and deemed high risk for contracting COVID-19 are expected to return to school by 1 June or 18 May, especially in situations where the grades taught are not yet informed to return to school
  • About Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs), she asked when schools can expect it to be delivered, if all classrooms, facilities and hostels were on the sanitisations program
  • She asked what plans are in place to allow social distancing in classrooms, and how the WCED will ensure all schools adhere to the COVID-19 safety regulations.
  • She wanted to know if hostels will automatically open when schools do, and
  • What protocols are in place to deal with students from other cities, provinces or countries relying on hostel accommodation during the school period
  • She further asked if the WCED was approached to avail school hostels or other infrastructure for isolation or quarantine usage, and  
  • If there is a COVID-19 case at a school, how will parents, especially in poorer communities be treated on that journey
  • Lastly, she asked if the WCED received any applications from independent schools to reopen already.

The Chairperson said she hoped Mr Schreuder wrote fast as it was a lot.  She assured him different Members posed questions in different ways and some will only make comments.

Mr K Sayed (ANC) thanked the Department for the presentation and co-operation the Committee received from it. He asked the following questions:

  • He wanted to know what will happen if schools reopened at level four, and for some or other reason the Western Cape, had to eventually return to level five of the lockdown, and
  • How much the response to COVID-19 will cost the WCED and where the money will come from.
  • He asked if all schools in the province had to meet the non-negotiables before learning would happen at the schools, and
  •  When the Department of Health (DOH) will issue the go ahead for a school to receive School Management Teams (SMT) and non-teaching staff
  • He further asked about various schools in the province falling victims to burglary and vandalism, questioning the extent of the damage assessed, and who will be responsible for the repairs
  • He noted this meant the criminals were at the school, and asked if this was not a reason for the Department to deep clean schools before the SMT returned
  • In an interview, the Provincial Minister of Education mentioned, when the time came for different grades to return to school, the WCED will be left with no choice but to allow learners to go to school on different days. He asked if this happened, if learners will be expected to learn while at home on days when not at school
  • Speaking about the Nutrition Programme at schools, he asked how the Department planned to monitor social distancing, and
  • Should the draft plans for the phased reopening of schools go ahead as planned, will the National School Edition programme be reopened and by when will it be reopened. He wanted to know if it will be opened for the majority of learners, or only for those who returned to school by those dates.

MEC Schafer said some argued the reason for returning to school on 1 June was wise, given the incredible effect on many issues, including the economy. The same issue can be raised about essential workers who are working for the last six weeks while schools are closed. The closed schools impacted people trying to go back to work and people getting the economy going again.  As long as schools are closed the task is a difficult one for people with children. She believed going back on 1 June is a good decision, considering only one grade at a time will go back initially. Proper processes are in place. It will be subject to the availability of PPE equipment. This itself is a problem for many provinces, including the Western Cape. There is a huge demand on PPE industries worldwide. All things are in place and the return will be feasible.

The Department needs a plan where there is a semblance of normality, while still taking precautions. The Provincial Minister said she often engages with the National Minister. SOPs are being developed.   Provinces are all making contributions. The Department hopes it will be ready within the next few days, but nothing is finalised at this point.

Regarding fee exemptions, people can apply at any time if in financial difficulty. Everyone is subject to the same problem. The need for masks alone means R15 million has to come from somewhere. Likewise, if schools wish to apply to be a “No Fees” school it can apply and a process is in place dealing with this. It depends on available funding which can allow it to happen.

PPE delivery is expected within the next week, but cannot be confirmed.  Regarding sanitation, the Department of Health assured the WCED, there will be no need to sanitise schools as the virus cannot last for more than six weeks. Schools are closed long enough to outlive the life span of the virus. While it remains a concern, where the Department had feeding schemes, those areas were sanitised on a continuous basis for the protection and safety of all involved. Where property was vandalised the Department was looking into it. It was not at every single school in the provinces, only at a select few. A deep cleaning of every single school in the province will be a waste of much needed resources. Schools will be cleaned as always, after the end of a long holiday and before students return back to school.

Regarding overcrowding, the reality is, unless the Department gets more teachers and classrooms, this issue will remain, unfortunately. The only possible solution could be staggering or having alternative classes on alternative days. She said as far as schools and hiring of halls and churches go, it is the first time she hears of it today.

Regarding the change of levels and its effect on schools, discussions were held on the issue but no firm decisions were made. It all depends on the cases presenting themselves when the time came. Hotspots and areas with high cases have to be closed and a catch-up plan must be devised.

If the lockdown rises to level five, there is a high chance it will lead to schools closing for a particular period.

Mr Schreuder answered on the issue of schools reopening. He said it is based on the knowledge that young people are not the most prone to the virus. Teachers are more susceptible to it, outside a school environment and within shopping centres, stores, petrol stations and hospitals and so on. Part of the challenge currently, is people’s perception of managing the pandemic. It is a harsh reality, but people can get infected and die. Opening schools is not deemed to be a particular contributor to this aspect.

On training, once again the Department depended on the Department of Basic Education. The DBE was developing materials over the past several weeks but has not yet been very forthcoming. It was always in drafts or finals, and input was sent. It has an orientations program made available for teachers to make use of. Teachers will get support. The WCED started developing guidelines in the absence of a National Operating Procedure (NAP), which was sometimes bombarded with information. It created more confusion than anything else. Parents are encouraged to continue paying school fees as costs are ongoing. The DBE recognised there were parents really going through a tough time and could therefore apply with proof of financial status to get an exemption.

Regarding the issue of teachers over-60s; the National Minister had issued a draft direction and direction which was not yet out but was based on very good health input from the Department of Health. It needed to be finally published before he could send it to schools for them to apply it. Sanitisers had already been delivered to schools and as the Minister had mentioned, PPE deliveries would not be delivered in one go as they were ordered from different places. Majority of deliveries were to be done within the next week.

Deep cleaning will not be necessary because the virus cannot survive more than six weeks and the issue was more psychological than medical. Thorough cleaning after a long holiday is required, that is why cleaning staff are needed back before teachers go back in bulk. A guideline regarding the issues of safety and cleanliness will be prepared and issued.

School hostels must also be cleaned before learners come back. If the lockdown goes to level five, the areas within those hotspots or near it will be instructed to close. Mr Schreuder said the Provincial Minister asked him to facilitate and manage one, two or even three returning grades within a phased in approach over a period of a month and a half. It will allow schools to make plans where classes are large, to make double classes, to spread a class across two classrooms.

Social distancing was now gospel, as it dramatically helped lower spread of the virus. In the school context, it was not possible. So, unless every learner is screened every day, has safety mechanisms, masks and clean hands, it is unlikely social distancing will be waived.  Some agencies said extra classes can be built, or begin platooning. The problem is the budget does not allow for this. It is already dealing with the influx into the province , a contributing factor to overcrowding of schools.

If social distancing continues to be a requirement within the school environment, after about two months or so of phasing, schooling will not be able to continue. The idea of hiring halls is an ill-conceived idea.

Training on Covid-19 safety will be offered. Training and orientation manuals will be made available before learners go back. In actual fact, must be ready before the bulk of teachers go back.

Senior staff in schools are the ones needing to prepare and orientate teachers. The principal of a school is an accountable official and must be held accountable for running his or her school. The monitoring of school space must be done by district officials and other monitoring agencies. No clear guidance was given by DBE about hostels.

Common knowledge suggests, students get screened whenever returning back from the weekend. Also, students must not be allowed in the hostel if there are any indications of the virus present. The students will have to be screened in the morning when going into the school, and on return. The SOP made clear indications about the steps to be taken for a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19. A COVID-19 case did not mean a school needs to automatically close down. According to health regulations the school must close down if there are multiple cases of the virus. Anyone in direct contact with the cases needs to self-isolate. A clear definition about what qualifies as direct contact is available, if necessary.

The DOH is tremendously strained for the next few months. Community health workers and others play a role in assisting if there are such cases. There was a conversation about the reporting mechanism and how the decision-making structure must take decisions in such instances. Ad-hoc decision making due to potential fear factors created more fear, and was often not necessary. The Department must be very, very precise, and consistent in managing and decision taking. No applications were received from Independent Schools to stay open. Independent schools are independent regardless if it is subsidised or not. Subsidisation happened on certain conditions only and there was no control or running the school. Where national directions were issued, it fell under the competence of the national Minister. The Minister included Independent schools in her directions whenever needed.

Mr Salie Abrahams, Deputy Director-General: Planning, WCED, said the extended closure of schools brought with it a number of immediate challenges and priorities. The WCED counted 88 cases of vandalism and theft. This was an immediate challenge. 43 projects were identified where WCED endeavoured to mobilise a team to attend to restoration. The reopening of those 43 projects ranged in terms of its extent of damage. Damage was typically extensive vandalism and/or break-ins, and attempted theft, where structural damage occurred. Within the context of listed 88 incidents, a further 12 incidences of significant water leakages occurred. There are some activities the school will handle, but the structural issues must be tackled by the Department.

Second to the emergency maintenance is how to ensure sufficient water and sanitation facilities are available at schools. With the increased enrolment there was a shortage of ablution facilities measured against regulations setting minimum norms and standards. The situation was manageable in the Western Cape. No situation was reported where a school was without water. Three mobile schools which did not have permanent connections or sufficient and stable water supply were activated in 202. The Department mobilised a number of options where it deployed standpipe tankers distributing potable water. The progress scheduled maintenance activities suspended during the lockdown will continue.

The Department was working with the curriculum to phase back grades, working on the requirements, especially for grade 12 and 7. Grade 7 is easier to do than Grade 12, because Grade 12’s are based on subject specialisations and choices. The WCED are working with statistics and schools to model a scenario as to how it proposes to manage the infrastructure challenges from day one. The Department did modeling on a 1:25 ratio. This is in line with trying to use a 48 square metre classroom while maintaining a one and a half metre distance.  If this regulation is maintained, the WCED can go onto a 1:25 scenario where it needs at least 1 600 classrooms for grades 12 and 7.

If the scenario continued where grade 10, 11, 5 and, 6 went back in the staggered approach, after one and a half months the students will not be able to be accommodated. Grade 8 and 9 in high school will be at the breaking point, and even grade 10 in non-metro districts.

On monitoring, infrastructure will give clarity and guidelines on the spatial beam of patients. That is, as it relates to queuing for things such as feeding and assemblies. Cleaning and sanitation is important and the WCED strengthened its controls around ensuring, as a workplace, the Department of Health’s regulations applied. Screening of individuals accessing the schools will be covered by the screening process as stipulated in the protocol or the SOP by the WCED.  CTA facilities are offered at some schools. The Department will extend this and repurpose other safe spaces potentially, if needed. Lastly, going back to vandalism , the goal is not just to restore the situation prior to COVID-19, but the WCED, in a western type context, in terms of its safety plan ,embarked on a way to bolster security and make sure facilities, particularly in cornered off areas, are protected.

The Department was approached to avail hostels and gave a consistent response saying it was not able to. This is because if schools open, hostels cannot be utilised for isolation or quarantine. If hostels are not being used and can be cornered off, and in situations where the Minister extended the lockdown of schools for a period of two to four months, then this was an exception.  The WCED cannot be everything for everyone. When it comes to the issue of children of teachers, if parents need to go back to work to get a salary, parents must make arrangements for children. Mr Schreuder said he had great sympathy for the situation but bringing those kids to schools will only add onto the pressure felt by everyone else.

On vandalism and damage to schools, there is not deep, extensive, damage, such as burnt buildings or anything of that nature. Rather superficial vandalism mainly. The Department realised, after looking at all the different avenues, overcrowding and social distancing will not allow for everyone to be at school at the same time. Therefore, when it comes down to it, alternative days seem to work best. Waiving of social distancing within the schooling environment for learners will change the dilemma.

Speaking about nutrition and feeding, the Department will feed those learners who were at school. It did not mean those who were not at school will not get feed; but rather will be given food during the interim period.

The Chairperson thanked Mr Schreuder, MEC Shaefer, and Mr Abrahams for the responses.

Mr F Christians (ACDP) posed the following questions.

  • What the situation was regarding vehicles and its capacity and how that would impact on the transport of learners to schools. Independent schools switched over to Microsoft Teams just as the Committee did and he asked if Microsoft Teams can be used for schools to bridge the gap, especially in the hotspot areas
  • If any other screening alternatives were considered, as many people were asymptomatic, meaning, teachers and students could be carrying the virus around and posing a health risk to other sand it would not be picked up
  • He asked if the shift from catch up to core value teaching affected students, and if there was enough time to teach using this method , especially since matric learners are going into tertiary institutions. Discussions must be at a national level to avoid provincial incompetencies creeping in, which could tank a student’s future at institutions outside the province
  • He said many schools lost a source of income in the use of halls and many had School Governing Body (SGB) posts. He asked if the Department will look at helping with the income of these posts

The Chairperson said she will open the floor to any final questions as the meeting must be concluded within the next few minutes.

Ms Botha asked if the Department was in discussions with municipalities about the payment of utilities by schools. She wanted to know how the Department ensured it was taken along on the journey to amplify the correctly informed message.

Mr Sayed asked the following:

  • For confirmation and clarity about the statement that not all teachers above the age of 60 are at risk
  • He wanted to know who will screen senior management teachers on Monday, and when will the CMO district staff be there to screen the SMT and non-teaching staff.
  • He also asked which measures will be put in place to curb cigarette smoking at schools, especially looking at the recent availability on the black market
  • Lastly, he wanted to know if the WCED will employ additional staff for deep cleaning and sanitising schools.

Mr Christians asked what support will be given to borderline case students to help them pass the term and the year as the situation was already difficult on students, but some students truly need extra assistance.

MEC Schafer replied to Mr Sayed, saying, the deep cleaning issue was already dealt with. Regarding the cigarette issue, she trusted Mr Sayed’s comment to be a facetious one. The issue of school fees was a big concern. Obviously, many could not pay school fees but others refused to as parents said their children were not even at school and parents had to teach the children. There was no win-win. Some schools appointed SGB teachers while others could not afford to. It became a big problem where the Department assisted those who had money to afford employing SGB teachers, while others could not even afford it in the first place. The Department was trying to work out something it could do to assist poor schools which employed one or two SGB teachers. There was no way the Department could pay for all.

The DOH explained being over 60 years of age was not a risk on its own. Those who were over 60 years and had co-morbidities were a high risk. People under 16 years who had co-morbidities were also high risk. Every school needs to look at and the SMT must go back and identify any persons who fall into the high-risk category. This is so that measures can be put in place to ensure everyone is kept as safe as possible. Regarding the capacity for travelling in conjunction with learning, the Minister of Transport did not yet release any information regarding that.

One of the methods used to deal with hotspot areas is blended learning. The Department had long argued that technology and cellphones must be utilised more for learning, because of kids’ innate aptitude to technology. Instead of banning it, it can be a solution.

The WCED will expand its WIFI hotspots to allow better access for those who do not have it.

The issue of passing, and failing, and students performing poorly, is something discussed not at a national level, but also in conjunction with the Department of Higher Education. Discussions were also held about postponing matric exams to a later date, such as November or December, instead of October.

Intensive programs will then be established, such as extra learning material and lessons to ensure a good pass and access to aid if needed.

Provincial management has been engaging with municipal managers around the payment of utilities on a weekly basis, and will continue raising the matter going forward.

Mr Schreuder said he was far from worried about cigarettes in schools, but rather worried around kids using drugs. This was the far greater danger than cigarettes. The safety committee dealt mainly with security safety and not health safety. A requirement was imposed on schools to create a COVID-19 Risk Mitigation Committee to identify the risks associated with COVID-19 impacting on a school. The Department needs to identify key challenges and mitigation on being COVID-19 compliant within the school context, as it will become the new normal.

The Chairperson thanked and excused the WCED for the presentation and very detailed and informative engagement. The Committee had to deal with administration matters.  The meetings were circulated to all Members and if Members did not have it, it can be found in the document repository.

The meeting was cut at 2:08:48 and the adoption of minutes was not shown.


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