Some parents, teachers and an education expert agree that children were better off at school, despite the fears of a looming spike in Covid-19 cases as 1 June drew closer. According to Dr Wycliffe Otieno, Chief of Education for Unicef South Africa, for millions of underprivileged school-going children, schools were safe spaces from toxic home environments with little space for social distancing or even learning. "First, school is where children spend most of the time and it has been a very abnormal and isolating experience for many who often get so much more than just education from school," said Otieno....
Some parents, teachers and an education expert agree that children were better off at school, despite the fears of a looming spike in Covid-19 cases as 1 June drew closer.
According to Dr Wycliffe Otieno, Chief of Education for Unicef South Africa, for millions of underprivileged school-going children, schools were safe spaces from toxic home environments with little space for social distancing or even learning.
"First, school is where children spend most of the time and it has been a very abnormal and isolating experience for many who often get so much more than just education from school," said Otieno. "School is where many pupils get their food, they socialise, get access to learning material and interact with teachers and it is where in many cases they are safer than at home."
Domestic violence numbers, which spiked worldwide during the pandemic, indicated the unique social role played by schools in communities plagued by violence, alcoholism and drug addiction.
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Parent and education expert Dr Jaco Deacon is looking forward to the reopening of schools, despite the concern that government needed to act fast in order to meet its Covid-19 safety objectives.
Deacon described the past 55 days of home schooling as a valuable life lesson and commended staff at the Bloemfontein public schools attended by his three children – Jim Fouche High School and Fichardtpark Primary School.
"I must compliment both the primary and the high school because of the way teachers have continued with the education to the best of their ability with Zoom, WhatsApp voice-notes and everything.
"As a parent, I believe both from hearing from the school and the direct experience I have had that we will be ready for school to start in June," he said.
Deacon and his wife, who is a teacher at a special school, said, as parents, they went to great lengths to maintain a modicum of normality at home, despite the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic.
Household chores and sleeping times were as regimented as school work, which he stressed was key to helping children cope with the new order of everyday life.
Vashna Singh, the mother of a Grade 10 boy, said she and her husband noted significant positive effects of their son working from home. He has been learning to take responsibility for his own academic progress and navigate the challenges and strengths of online and distance learning.
But she acknowledged that she and other parents had witnessed the psychological effect the sudden changes brought on by the pandemic.
"It is obviously not normal for children to be away from school for this long," said Singh. "Not even the December holidays are this long and there is a sense of isolation, as well as having to cope with learning from home."
Both parents acknowledged the privileged position of their families in being able to provide their children with the gadgets, internet connectivity and conducive learning environments for their children to learn at home.
"We also felt it very important to help our children understand that we are very privileged and that some children have to cope with even more during this time," said Deacon. "We think it's very important to explain what privilege is and what we can do to help those who are underprivileged."
He added that 9.4 million pupils relied solely on the school nutrition programme and this was among many things which a lucky few parents had to think about when it came to their children's education.
But concerns remained over how soon government would be able to deliver on such essential Covid-19 protocols such as personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff and the installation of sanitation and water systems in underfunded schools.
Deacon, who is also the CEO of the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools, said concerns remained over whether provincial governments would be able to make good on Education Minister Angie Motshekga's promises of ready schools with all the correct Covid-19 protocols observed, come next month.
Civil rights group AfriForum's head of education, Carien Bloem, said while it was important for schools to reopen, schools had to reassure parents it was safe for their children to return.
It was also important that parents take responsibility and make sure their children were informed about the virus, including how to apply safe and clean hygiene.
"Many schools have already sent out sufficient communication to the parents about the Covid-19 epidemic and how the school will manage it, but unfortunately, many schools do not have the resources to communicate with their parents," said Bloem.
"Not all schools have the resources to make up for lost time."
A teacher's view
Miriam (not her real name), a teacher and member of the SA Democratic Teachers Union, painted a grim picture of the condition her school was still in ahead of her first day back at work on Monday.
"I really do not feel safe because it is only today that the offices are being cleaned, so we are not sure whether schools will be ready next week," she said.
"Seeing the numbers of cases rising every day is scary and I also think it is too soon for the pupils. I know that mam Angie [Motshekga] wants to save the school year, but the risks are really high to me. Maybe it will be easier to control the Grade 12s, but the small children – I'm not sure if they are ready."
This teacher's place of work was a secondary school in the Free State with no running water in the toilets and several vandalised classrooms.
While personal protective equipment had been delivered for all staff, Miriam felt that not only would children not be safe, but, at 52, she was worried about her heightened risk of suffering the deadly disease.
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