Honourable Members and Colleagues
Ladies and Gentlemen
Honourable Speaker, we thank you for the opportunity to update the nation on the phased-approach to the reopening of public schools amid the containment measures to manage the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in our country. This allows us to account to this august House for the work we do on behalf of our people. Since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic and resultant lockdown, we have endeavoured to rescue the academic year while protecting lives at all costs.
Against all the odds, it is now with a degree of comfort that we point out---we are on course to rescue the sector from ruins that this virulent pandemic has caused. We have taken extraordinary measures to combat and manage the spread of the epidemic in our sector. We adopted a staggered approach for the re-opening of schools to avoid congestion and observe the novel social distancing. The COVID-19 essentials have been provided to all staff and learners. All schools have been deep-cleaned and disinfected. Water and sanitation have been provided to all in need.
Honourable Speaker, before we proceed, let me report on the prevalence of the COVID-19 pandemic on our schools since the last reporting period. The COVID-19 statistics in schools show that schools' level of infections reflects the infections in the whole country. There's a high rate of infections amongst teachers (6161), followed by learners (1176) and support staff at 762. Sadly, we report 78 fatalities (teachers) and eight non-teaching staff. Thankfully, no learner death has been reported yet. We send our deepest condolences to the bereaved families. Your loss cuts deep into our souls. Be comforted that your loved ones have run their race. Ours is to pick up the spear and soldier on. The dead will continue to live amongst us in our hearts. You're sorely missed.
Honourable Speaker and Members, our strategy to rescue the 2020 academic year is predicated on two pillars – curriculum trimming for all grades except grade 12. As previously stated, we are on course to deliver the full curriculum coverage for Grade 12s so that their school exit qualification enjoys the same status as the previous cohort. I am happy to report that, as of yesterday, we successfully opened our school gates to learners in Grades R, 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 10, and 11. The final set of grades, namely Grades 5 and 8, will be returning on 31 August 2020 as per our previous commitment.
Honourable Speaker, since the second restart of schooling, we have noted some interesting trends. For instance, teacher attendance is consistently at above 80% in all provinces except Gauteng. However, learner attendance is not satisfactory across the country and the grades. Learner attendance on the (second restart) the first week of school re-opening for Grade 7s was worse than that for the Grade 12 learners except in Limpopo. Learner attendance in all provinces remains at a worrying low percentage point of 75% or below. All Provincial Education Departments are seized with this matter of encouraging all learners to return to school using various methods. This goes to show that the experts were right from the beginning, as they contended that the longer the marginalized children are out of school, the less likely they are to return.
Earlier research had confirmed that children from the poorest households are already almost five times more likely to be out of primary school than those from the richest. As a country, including political leaders, we need to reflect honestly on our public utterances that may be misconstrued as a call encouraging learners not to return to school.
Honourable Members, we need to understand the low learner attendance in its proper context. There are three main reasons why learners do not physically attend classes at school as far as we are concerned. These include having comorbidities, parents' fear or anxiety about COVID-19, and access to online learning. The most common reason for learners' absence from school is the parents’ fear or anxiety related to COVID-19. As a responsible Government, all provinces have put in place support programmes for learners who cannot physically attend school due to any of the reason already mentioned. Support to these learners includes the provision of printed materials, especially those who do not have access to virtual or e-learning, digital content, and other forms of support, including psycho-social support. Provinces have put together impressive learner support materials and processes to ensure that no child is left behind. However, the emphasis is on Grade 12 because, as already announced, there will be no curriculum trimming.
I am happy to report that most schools have adopted ICTs to assist learners who have been exempted from school attendance. This includes the provision of laptops, tablets, and access to data. For example, the Northern Cape has developed learner support packages for all the subjects in all grades. Parents or caregivers collect the learning material for use by the learners. The use of local radio stations also plays a vital role in these uncertain times.
Honourable Members, our sector is besieged by protests emanating from environmental factors such as community protests. Other sources of school disruptions are home-brewed such as the SGB demonstrations. The more insidious protests are led by the Congress of South African Students (Cosas). These were prevalent in five provinces, i.e., Free State, Gauteng, Limpopo, North West, and Western Cape. This could account for low levels of teacher and learner attendance in these provinces. We appeal to communities and organisations to desist from disrupting the schooling of other people’s children. Our Constitution provides for the freedom of choice of which these parents and learners are exercising. We politely request that those with legitimate grievances shall engage with us as leaders in the sector. The whole ludicrous flexing of muscles through school disruptions serves only the best interests of the saboteurs.
Our children have a right to public schooling, and no one has a right to disrupt their education for their nefarious political gains. We are exploring various political and legal mechanisms to nip this emerging “rebellion” of rebels without a cause in the bud.
Honourable Members, another serious matter affecting our schools' proper functioning is the sinister rise in vandalism of our schools’ property. During the earlier levels of the COVID-19 lockdown, we recorded over 2 278 incidents of vandalism in our schools. There are now 36 new cases - 33 in KwaZulu-Natal, two in Gauteng and one in Mpumalanga. However, none of these new cases have led to school closures. Nonetheless, I am happy to report that all affected provinces are making good progress in repairing vandalised schools. All Provincial Education Departments (PED’s) have secured required funds to do major repairs. All necessary repairs are either complete, near completion, or work in progress.
Honourable Members, it is clear that the destruction of public property, especially schools by these unidentified heartless criminals heavily disguised as human beings, is a direct attack on the State's authority. It's clear to us that these attacks on our schools are organised, sophisticated, and targeted. We may not know the motive yet, but it is clear we are dealing with a syndicate or, if not syndicates. For us, the endgame has arrived.
We have reached a stage where we have no other choice but to impose the State's authority and stop this wanton destruction of public property. We are liaising with various law enforcement agencies to coordinate our response with the necessary bite, fire, and expertise.
Honourable Speaker and Members, on the issue of the National School Nutrition Programme, some progress has been made since the reopening, but challenges abound. Our schools are using different modalities to ensure that learners receive their one nutritious meal per schooling day. A common challenge shared by many schools is that few learners come to school to eat or collect their food due to transport challenges and fear of contracting COVID-19. To minimize wastage, schools prepare less food and distribute leftover food to low-income families in the community.
Honourable Speaker to rescue the academic year while protecting lives requires ingenuity. We have offered our schools various timetabling as part of the Differentiated Timetable Model to suit local conditions. Each school has carefully considered a model that takes into account its peculiar needs and circumstances. The most preferred model is an alternative week, and the least preferred is platooning. Using the same timetabling model used before the outbreak of COVID-19 is the second most used model.
Honourable Speaker and Members, we have been burning the midnight oil with all Education MECs. We are satisfied that the system is ready for a second restart during the COVID-19 pandemic peak. We appreciate the support, monitoring, and accountability mechanism emanating from this House to keep us focussed on our mission. We shall indeed overcome. As a nation, our resilience is legendary. We are in this together. We shall fight as a collective. We shall overcome as a united front. We shall heal as one. In times of war, I will run, when I become tired, I will walk, when I also become tired, I will crawl, when I too become tired, I will roll and roll and roll until I roll no more. May God bless South Africa and protect her people!
I, thank you.