Challenges and Mitigation of COVID-19 impact on Schools; with Minister

NCOP Education and Technology, Sports, Arts and Culture

02 September 2020
Chairperson: Mr E Nchabeleng (ANC, Limpopo)
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Meeting Summary

Video: Select Committee on Education and Technology, Sports, Arts & Culture (NCOP) 2 Sep 2020

The Select Committee received a status report by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) on the reopening of schools and the amended 2020 calendar. The presentation focused on the COVID-19 impact on the schooling system and the plans to facilitate the continuation of the school year. This included efforts in providing resources to learners across all grades, including educational broadcasts on TV and radio, online learning through meeting platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom, as well as providing worksheets and exemplar examination papers and memoranda. The curriculum has been trimmed to accommodate the revised number of teaching days available. DBE is in the final stages of preparing for final examinations which are aimed to be concluded by 15 December 2020. The suggested start date for the 2021 academic year is 25 January 2021 with the ten days lost to be caught up by reducing the April and June holidays by one week each.

DBE assured the Committee that auditing was being conducted on PPE procurement as well as SIU investigation on the R600 million spent on water and sanitation. DBE was constantly monitoring that all schools have their PPE.

In grade 7, there are 52 090 learners projected to drop out and in grade 12 there are 23 362 projected to drop out. Parents are being encouraged to allow their children to continue. Various options have been provided for schools to return in a manner that ensures social distancing and assistant and substitute teachers are being enlisted to address the shortage of teachers who have co-morbidities and cannot return. DBE has made efforts to communicate with parents and learners on their return to school using SMS and broadcasts and has put in place policy measures to encourage their safe return. DBE is providing food to learners through the Nutrition Programme during COVID-19 and is making efforts to communicate this to parents.

A key concern for the Committee was the loss of the academic year for learners who chose not to return to school for various reasons. DBE stated that it was unfortunate but these learners would have to repeat the year. However, DBE is monitoring the drop-out rate and statistics of learners not returning for it to plan for increased numbers next year. Another concern was the budget required to arrange substitute teachers for the large number of teachers at home due to comorbidities. DBE said they were making use of education assistants working in tandem with these teachers.

Meeting report

The Chairperson said his main concern was achieving the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 which stipulates “all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education”. He asked if this dream will ever be achieved, given that even before the pandemic happened, the state of education around the world was in crisis. COVID-19 has now compounded the situation and he wanted to know, with all the interventions started in the past six months, if the dream of SDG 4 is achievable.

The Minister of Basic Education, Ms Angie Motshekga, said the DBE presentation will illustrate the challenges. She said the easiest answer to the Chairperson’s question was ‘no’ unless something very dramatic happens. Even though the schools reopened, social distancing means that the timetable has learners platooning or alternating days which has given less time for contact learning. This means that the four months that have been lost is not the sum total as schools will still be losing hours. Something drastic needs to happen, not just next year but for a long period of time to recover from the crisis. In education, COVID-19 is a major threat to the well being of children and their future.

The Minister said that experts have said that it may take 10 years for us to recover because the pandemic is a major blow. Most people have been encouraging the country to have 13 years of basic education. Instead this generation, if nothing gives, is going to have a basic education that even less than the expected 12 years. She said that this is a very difficult, stressful and painful situation when you think about the future of our children. Unless something big and drastic happens, this generation will be a disadvantaged generation academically. She was still hopeful that with measures such as ICT that we can still claw back, however it would not be possible this year or next year.
State of the Reopening of Schools

DBE Director General, Mr Mathanzima Mweli, stated that the day before DBE presented this comprehensive presentation to the Portfolio Committee on Basic Education. The presentation covers 28 items, some of which were suggested by the Select Committee, for example the need to reflect on health, the need for DBE to indicate what they are doing with the challenge of school governing body (SGB) posts. On the possibility of meeting SDG 4 of UNESCO, he stated that more needs to be done if the presentation does not comprehensively cover this question.

Mr Mweli said the picture looks bleak, not only in South Africa but all over the world. Sadly the country was doing well and was among the countries making very good progress towards meeting SDG 4, according to the last report by UNESCO. Before that, the country had also demonstrated excellent progress particularly in access and redress. The picture on the slide is of an eleven year old in class 6 in Kenya, which reflects the mood particularly in developing countries.

Ms Simone Geyer, Deputy Director General: Planning and Monitoring, said in terms of international experience, DBE has done extensive research having looked at countries in the northern hemisphere and in Africa. They have followed what they are doing in terms of best practice and lessons DBE could draw from in how they are responding to COVID-19. In the countries mentioned on the slide such as the UK, they have never really implemented social distancing as we have.

DBE focused on grades 7 and 12 learners and teachers, which started with a lower percentage attendance. In some provinces, the percentage was lower than others. Limpopo had quite a good percentage in attendance in both grades and they had put in place many measures to ensure that learners come back by drawing on the Quality Learning and Teaching Campaign (QLTC) programme and structures. All the provinces went out of their way to ensure parents were aware that the schools are open. They also utilised various broadcasters to get the message across.

Drop out rates
There were no province which showed 100% attendance for grades 7 and 12. Provinces have been looking for an explanation for absence if the parent has chosen to keep the learner at home because of anxiety or comorbidity. These have become the potential dropout rates in the system. Not only have the numbers been identified but measures have been put in place to follow up with the learners and the parents to try and get them to back to school.

Exemptions from School Attendance
There are various categories of learners that have been exempted from school attendance such as learners with comorbidities, ill health other than comorbidities, those who have fear and anxiety, those whose parents have chosen to do ‘lockdown learning’ which is virtual online learning by the school, and those who may have appointed a service provider for their virtual online learning.

In supporting learners exempted from school attendance, a lot of material is available to provinces such as video recordings, online learning in available apps, emailing and live meeting opportunities through Teams/Zoom. There are also materials DBE has from the past in the form of either printed material or video recordings or broadcasts as well as worksheets which have been made available.

Resource Support for Learners
Provinces have not had a uniform approach in supporting learners. For example online learning has been stronger in Gauteng and Eastern Cape as the online options have been utilised more than other provinces with the help of the rollout of devices to learners. Those provinces who do not have such options available have used other options. Recently, DBE has launched Woza Matric which went live on 1 September which is accessing broadcasting opportunities for learners to have access to TV learning. DBE has secured dedicated time from SABC to provide for learning hours during school time as well as afterwards. It provides opportunities for interventions and learning materials, particularly for matrics to help prepare for exams.

Province Readiness
DBE tracked the readiness of the provinces to receive learners. The biggest challenge in most provinces so far for facility readiness has been access to water and ablution facilities. For readiness in terms of teachers, the biggest challenge was teachers at high risk due to comorbidities. Provinces had to determine how many substitutes and assistant teachers would be required to replace teachers with comorbidities.

DBE has a daily six o’clock meeting to ensure water supply is sorted out in communities. They track those schools that require assistance as well as the extent to which deliveries have occurred.

Curriculum Coverage
The schools in all provinces put together plans on how they would deal with measures to support grade 12 learners including the extent of interventions other than classroom teaching. DBE has made efforts to support schools aside from normal classroom teaching through digital resources, worksheets, pace setters, radio broadcasts, tutorial questions, exemplar questions and memoranda. Woza Matric has a particular focus to assist matrics aside from what the provinces have been doing. This is to replace the learner camps which usually take place were it not for COVID-19. These efforts have also been extended to other grades however the focus is on the 2020 matriculants so that they are not lost in the system.

For Grades R to 11, the curriculum has been trimmed and the content revised. A plan has been devised to play catch up in the next year or two depending on the curriculum not covered. Similar to the grade 12s, measures have been implemented including worksheets, broadcasts and Whatsapp. Due to social distancing, the school timetable had to be revised and a lot of them are following a rotational programme where over a two-week period the learner receives five days of teaching. Learners will come to school for two days in one week then for three days the following week. This allows all learners an opportunity to cover the same curriculum to ensure fairness.

DBE is in at an advanced stage in the preparation for final examinations and ensuring that they are conducted with integrity. All the information on how preparations for exams will occur has been sent out to provinces.

Protocols for dealing with COVID-19
The Standard Operating Procedures are the essential guiding protocols for dealing with COVID-19 at schools and shows how learners/parents/teachers must conduct themselves at schools including social distancing measures such as no entry without a mask and learners are provided with two masks. Procedures that need to be followed in the event of contamination are also provided for. The document has been amended to include the revised time for isolation from 14 to 10 days. Any changes to the operating procedures will be communicated to schools.

Psychosocial support is an additional intervention to help within COVID-19. There is a variety of support required such as how to cope with losing a loved one or a community member. There is a working relationship with the Departments of Social Development and Health and psychologists and social workers have been brought in to help support schools.

DBE has tried to ensure that there is a 1.5 metre social distancing in schools. This has not been followed in all cases because of more grades returning to school but DBE tried by ensuring tight monitoring. Each school has a procedure for taking temperatures, asking questions on contact with a person with COVID-19 as well as sanitization and mask wearing.

On mask monitoring, learners may not enter the premises without a mask. Should they arrive without a mask, they will either be provided with a mask or isolated in an area where they can wait for a parent to bring them a mask. In procuring the masks, quality checks of masks were made to ensure they comply with standards and DBE is constantly checking with provinces on this.

There has been numerous litigation faced by DBE, all of which DBE has been successful. The only case DBE lost concerned the nutrition programme at schools in balancing the right to have a meal and the challenges DBE had in providing it.

School Nutrition Programme and Transport
The main challenges for the National School Nutrition Programme has been low turn-up which has also depended on what food was being served on a particular day. To mitigate this, DBE has opened up communication and advocacy channels to encourage and inform parents and learners to collect food from their schools.

DBE has ensured that there are scholar transport measures that comply with COVID-19 protocols including social distancing and sanitization. They have worked with the Department of Transport, particularly about bus drivers who are paid according to load numbers and planned how to manage and mitigate the effects of reduced load while social distancing. Provinces have now put in place measures.

Teachers with Comorbidities and Replacement Staff
These teachers had to apply for concessions using information from their doctors explaining the circumstances of their health. Where a concession was granted, the teachers had to have replacements. In some cases, provinces are at an advanced stage in securing replacements. Provinces have looked at the excess teachers they had as well as checking the unemployed teachers database and finding replacement teachers this way.

School Deviations
If a school was not able to open on the date it was supposed to or if they deviated and came back earlier, this was not something they could simply do on their own, they had to request permission from the Education MEC who applied to the Minister. In some instances the reasons for deviation were vandalism, lack of sanitation or water which led schools to request opening a week later. As time went by, the deviation requests in the second round of lockdown were to return earlier with the necessary measures put in place.

School Timetables
DBE has provided timetable options where schools could choose either the platoon timetable where they run two shifts each day at school for same/different grades coming at different times, with one morning session and one afternoon session. Then there are alternative weeks over a two week period where one week the learner comes and the other week they do not. Alternate days allow learners to go to school for two days one week and three days the next week in a cycle. The hybrid model allows for a combination of options. These models can also be applied in hostels.

Initially there were planned disruptions by community members and COSAS, which was largely due to misinformation and parents not understanding that they could actually decide to keep their children at home due to fear and anxiety. DBE worked and settled with these parties. Fortunately, there are not many organized disruptions occurring and most of the problems have been settled.

Quality Learning and Teaching Campaign (QLTC) Programme
Historically, the QLTC programme has been weak, so during the COVID-19 period there has been a drive by DBE to encourage provinces to establish the structures and ensure they are functional. This is because the QLTC structures will be the ones that will be able to mitigate a lot of the problems that communities are experiencing by having campaign drives, advocacy drives and providing information.

Procurement of PPE was done in the provinces, including cloth masks for learners and enough sanitizers. In some instances they have ordered PPE in excess of 3-6 months and stored them in a safe place with just-in-time delivery of the stock for schools. This was to provide for learners as they return in numbers in school as well as protect the equipment from burglaries. There are processes to ensure that COVID-19 procurement followed proper procedures and that there was value for money in what was received and that these essentials did not get lost on the way or quality did not deteriorate.

Amended 2020 School Calendar
As a result of the two lockdowns of schools, there have been two amendments to the school calendar. The first amendment looked at how schools could catch up and recover lost school days and it did this very well with 173 school days provided for. Unfortunately schools were closed down in July again which resulted in the second amendment. All assessments will be concluded by the 15 December 2020 for Grades R-11 with Grade 12s writing the 2020 National Senior Certificate exams from 5 November to 15 December. The suggested date for the start of the next academic year is 25 January 2021 which will require only a 10 day catch up by reducing the June and April holidays by one week to recover school days. These suggestions are subject to approval by stakeholders.

The Chairperson asked if the funds intended for COVID-19 purposes were used for COVID-19 purposes. He asked if DBE can give assurance that all procurement procedures were followed.

Ms D Christians (DA, Northern Cape) said that there have been reports of 6 400 substitute and assistant teachers across the country and she asked how this has affected DBE finances. What systems are in place where teachers are unable to teach due to comorbidities? How about the schools where SGB educators have been let go because they do not have the necessary school fee income to support those SGB teachers?

Ms Christians asked where there are no teachers what effect has this had? Are there substitute teachers to see to it that teaching of value takes place? In grade 7 alone, there are 52 090 learners projected to drop out and in grade 12 there are 23 362 projected to drop out. She asked what support mechanisms are in place to ensure that these learners, especially in rural areas, are reached out to and encouraged to return to school. Have schools been equipped to reach out to these learners? Where schools need counsellors and support, what is DBE doing to equip teachers to do this counselling because there are not many social workers available? She asked how DBE and the Department of Social Development are working together to ensure that learners do not get lost and forgotten in the system.

In light of what has been seen in the media about PPE fraud, she asked what DBE’s view was as far as educational institutions are concerned. Was DBE happy with the PPE rollout? Where the curriculum is not completed but will be rolled out in the following year, was DBE confident that the teachers would cope with the workload come 2021? As a NCOP member for the Northern Cape, it had come to her attention that there had been incubation camps. One of the camps is at the Van Der Kloof Dam, where 155 learners were taken to the camp. She asked if DBE knows anything about these camps. Was DBE sure that these learners are safe and protocols are being observed such as social distancing and sufficient PPE? She was concerned about the Northern Cape’s lack of reporting. They have not reported on PPE quality nor the projected learner drop-out. This means DBE has no plans to mitigate this problem in the Northern Cape and to ensure assistance that these learners return to school.

Ms S Luthuli (EFF, KZN) said she would like to know what would happen to learners who do not return to school. She has spoken to a lot of parents. There are parents who still have not taken their kids back to school, especially Grades R to 2 because they are too anxious and think it is not safe. She asked if those kids would repeat their grade. She expressed concern especially for the Grade Rs because there are new kids coming in next year. She asked if DBE had acted on the promise of kids receiving two masks, particularly kids who returned to school only later.

Mr M Bara (DA, Gauteng) welcomed the information provided by DBE. This report goes a long way in trying to respond to the many issues that are confronting the Department. On the number of kids coming back to school, he asked the reasons they are not coming back if they are not enrolled in any private institution. He asked what the situation is like now in terms of replacing teachers with comorbidities, particularly as there are quite huge numbers. How is DBE going to resolve this? Given the reworked dates for matric results, is a conversation taking place between Basic Education and Higher Education and Training to ensure that the universities will still be open for matriculants who will receive their results in March? Was there a working relationship that sought to address this? On the disruptions that have happened at various schools, he asked if these have been resolved or are there still issues that need to be dealt for schooling to take place.

The Minister asked to be excused and the Chairperson said that if there are any questions that need the Minister’s intervention, these will be referred to her in writing.

The Chairperson said that he is also worried about the disruptions at schools and the impact of the disruptions. Under normal circumstances if a child stays away from school for a two-day illness, they take a long time to recover that lost time. So imagine this period that they have to go through? It is good to hear that there is a plan to mitigate this but for the plan to work, parents must also put all hands on deck.

DBE response
Mr Mweli replied about funds allocated for COVID-19 essentials, saying what was presented to the Committee is the findings of the Auditor-General in the Interim Audit. The President requested the Auditor-General to prioritise auditing all COVID-19 procurement in all departments. The first part of the report is only going to be completed at the end of September and will be tabled in Parliament. The last part of the report is going to be tabled in November. Alongside the work of the Auditor-General, the President had also identified departments which must be investigated by the Special Investigating Unit (SIU). Education was one of those departments. It was visited by the SIU to satisfy itself that the R600m set aside for water and sanitation was not diverted to anything else. DBE was given a number of questions to answer and Mr David van der Westhuizen, Head of DBE Infrastructure met with the SIU. They are still awaiting the SIU to give its report. The SIU is busy in the provinces and doing the investigation and as soon as a report is available, they will advise the Chairperson if it is appropriate to share that information with him or if he can get it from the SIU.

Mr Mweli said that the disruptions are not only academically costly, but also monetarily costly. Learners might have to repeat grades which means taxpayers might have to pay more than once for a learner in one grade. Some of the disruptions have political motives. There have been political organisations that have been involved in disrupting learning and teaching. Some parents out of lack of knowledge did that. However DBE has communicated to them five options which have been set out in the presentation. If a parent feels they do not want to take their child to school, they are at liberty to do so. However they have to put up with the consequences that accrue from that decision. One of the consequences is that those learners will sadly have to repeat their grade next year. This means that the work the learner did in the first quarter of 2020 will go down the drain. For learners that have gone back to school, the work from the first quarter will be combined with the work that they do now, and it will be determined if they can go to the next grade. This is what DBE is trying to communicate to parents and sometimes they are understanding and other times they do not understand.

Mr Mweli replied that when grades 12s and 7s began to return, DBE did not have the pressure of ensuring that all substitute teachers were in place as they could use the other grade teachers who were still available. Now that all grades are back, the pressure is on the system to ensure that the posts of teachers with comorbidities are filled. The substitute posts were based on historical numbers but now COVID-19 has increased those numbers ten or hundred fold which makes it extremely difficult. This is why DBE is talking of education assistants because they will not be able to pay a substitute teacher at the same salary level as a teacher with comorbidities. This is why they are bringing in education assistants to help teachers who are at home and making sure learners are fully occupied at home. The provinces are doing this. However this is placing a huge financial strain on provinces because they did not budget for this and did not receive additional money; instead budgets have been cut which makes the task of fully replacing teachers difficult.

Mr Mweli said that the little advantage with School Governing Body (SGB) posts is that they concern schools in quintile four and five and usually SGB posts would help the school to have a favourable learner-to-teacher ratio. Now that they will not have these SGB posts, this ratio will go up but DBE is looking at ways to support schools so that they do not collapse.

Teacher replacements are being monitored on a weekly basis. Possible learner dropouts are being monitored so that DBE is able to plan for learners who will return in numbers next year to repeat grades they were not able to complete this year. They are closely monitoring these figures.

On counselling, Mr Mweli replied they do not want to burden teachers with counselling learners because there is a lot they have to do in covering the curriculum. DBE is using their specialists who are there, such as life orientation teachers whose responsibility falls within the purview of some counselling, as well as NGOs, universities and faith-based organisations. People would be amazed at the capacity of faith-based organizations for trauma counselling and support.

On completing the curriculum, DBE was looking at a three-year arrangement for curriculum recovery. They are also looking at curriculum recovery this year and will continue to strengthen the monitoring of the recovery. They are monitoring this in the one-on-one meetings with each province every week.

Incubation camps have been spoken about in the Heads of Education Departments Committee (HEDCOM) meetings. These incubation camps are strongly discouraged. They could be allowed to run provided that health, safety and social distancing requirements are fully met, no compromise, otherwise they may not continue and every province has understood this. DBE will meet and follow up with Northern Cape about the missing reports on PPE quality and drop-out rates.

Mr Mweli said that learners who have not returned to school would have to repeat, which will be a waste of one year in their lives. Follow-ups are still being done with provinces to ensure that every learner receives two masks. He asked Ms Luthuli for details of any schools she knows that may not have this policy in place. He would ensure that the directions are very clear that every learner, every educator and non-teaching staff must receive two masks, nothing less.

The main reason for learners not returning to school was fear and anxiety; fear of infection and their child dying despite scientific and medical evidence indicating very few learners die from COVID-19.

On 24 August, DBE met with the Forum of Universities and had very good discussions. Universities will start admitting learners at the time of the release of results and the plans are in line with the plans of universities. They are also meeting with assessment bodies to coordinate the release of results so the matriculants are not compromised or disadvantaged.

The Chairperson stated that any questions the Committee felt were not answered or dealt with adequately would be sent in writing to the Department.

The meeting was adjourned.


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