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Is this the beginning of the end of the academic year?

File picture: AP Photo / Themba Hadebe

EXPERTS and education bodies are debating whether pupils will return to class this year following President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement to close schools for four weeks from July 27 to August 24.

Stellenbosch University’s Professor Jonathan Jansen said the academic year is basically over by the end of August as schools prepare for their exams.

“Rolling over the academic year into the next is going to be an organisational nightmare as new entrants wait to access the system. They should have passed everyone on the existing policy of automatic promotion except for the matrics, for whom the exam could have been shifted to January 2021 and therefore still allow for university entrance on a slightly modified timetable for higher education entrants. This is going to be a planning fiasco,” he said.

Education specialist Patti Silbert said for many pupils schools provided far more than learning the curriculum. 

“They are places where pupils socialise, where there is some form of structure, regularity and predictability. Due to the pandemic, however, 

public schools have become precarious, fragile spaces in which structure and regularity are compromised on a daily basis despite best efforts from principals and teachers. 

“With regard to the school calendar, the universities are running into March-April of next year. We feel schools could do the same and should look at changing the school calendar accordingly,” Silbert said.

Chief executive of Edge Education Andrew Hibling said the key was to keep pupils moving through the system. 

“There is still time. We are at risk-adjusted Level 3. We are optimistic that active Covid-19 cases are likely to fall. The step to close schools could be considered unnecessary, but with the risk-adjustment for grade 7s and 12s, the impact will be less,” he said.

Grade 12 pupils will have a one-week break and return on August 3. Grade 7 pupils have a two-week break and return on August 10.

In response to Ramaphosa not mentioning anything on private schools, Curro spokesperson Mari Lategan said: “Curro can confirm that independent schools are unaffected by this decision. All schools within the independent education provider’s stable will, therefore, remain open and learning will continue as per the calendar communicated to parents earlier this term.”

Western Cape Education MEC Debbie Schäfer said she was in favour of a two-week break of schools. “But a four-week closure is against the interests of pupils, and is not based on the medical evidence currently available,” she said.

The MEC’s spokesperson, Kerry Mauchline, said scrapping the school year was not an option.

“It presents an immediate logistical problem where a new cohort of grade Rs and 1s will join schools next year. We are already short of space at schools in the Western Cape due to persistent underfunding, so it is simply not possible. 

“Over and above this, there are profound negative consequences to children’s health, safety, food security and future earnings if schools are closed for the rest of the year.”

An economist at Flux Trends, Bronwyn Williams, said education was the single most important key to the growth of the economy.

“South Africa already has a below-average educational attainment and below-average return on investment in education compared to comparable nations. We cannot afford to lose an educational year.

“Also note the increase in inequality of access to education between state pupils and privately-educated pupils who have not had the same disruption/gap in their learning as state pupils. 

“Catching up, especially for formative early learning and matric years, will be a challenge,” she said.

Equal Education said it cautiously supported the decision to temporarily close public schools, as the Department of Basic Education and the provincial Education departments work to address legitimate and serious concerns raised by teachers and learners about some schools being unsafe and inadequately supported to reopen. 

Meanwhile, teacher unions have come out in support of the decision, but the DA said it would challenge the decision in court because “it was irrational and was not based on scientific evidence, but political pressure from the unions”.

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