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News24.com | Closing schools ‘regrettable and unjustifiable’, says SA Human Rights Commission

  • The SA Human Rights Commission said the decision to close schools for four weeks was regrettable and unjustifiable. 
  • It cited evidence suggesting that harm was being done to children who were not in school. 
  • It said it would monitor the provision of food to qualifying children and the provision of learning materials.

The SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) said on Thursday that it regarded the government’s decision to keep public schools closed for four weeks – except for those in Grades 7 and 12 – as regrettable and unjustifiable. 

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On Wednesday evening, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that all public schools would “take a break” for the next four weeks from 27 July until 24 August. Grade 12 pupils and teachers would only take a week-long break and return on 1 August, and Grade 7 pupils would take a two-week break and return on 10 August.

Ramaphosa said the academic year would be extended beyond 2020 and the details would be communicated in due course.

The SAHRC had always been opposed to the closure of schools. Earlier this month, it said it supported Unicef’s position that pupils should return to schools as soon as possible because “evidence points to harm being done to children by not being in school”.

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In its most recent statement, the SAHRC said: “[The government’s] decision means that by 24 August, over 10 million South African children, depending on the grade they are in, will have lost over 50% or 100 scheduled school days as a result of Covid-19 school closures. The commission’s view on the opening of schools is guided by the evidence provided by a range of researchers that point to the devastating consequences of children not being at school.”

The SAHRC cited evidence of the following:

  • Increases in hunger and malnutrition. For many poor children the meal they get at school constitutes a high percentage of total food they receive daily.
  • Increases in acute malnutrition significantly raise the risk of children dying from pneumonia, diarrhoea and HIV/Aids.
  • Poor children are not being screened for diseases which kill thousands of South Africans annually and severely compromise many more, notably TB and HIV.
  • An increased risk of child abuse, mental health breakdowns with rising rates of depression and anxiety.
  • Children are at a high risk of being left home alone when their caregivers go to work.
  • Increases in inequality since poorer pupils and schools are least able to continue learning.
  • Poorer children regress significantly in terms of reading and maths skills during extended absence from school.

“On this last matter, the SAHRC notes that independent schools, which serve both affluent and poor communities, may remain open. In addition, current directions from the Department of [Basic] Education allow schools to deviate from the dates for the opening of schools for particular grades.

“The SAHRC’s survey, with over 4 500 respondents, shows that 43% of schools intend to request approval to deviate from the dates published for the opening of schools. Both these factors are likely to exacerbate the inequalities in education.

Provision of meals welcomed

“On the other hand, the commission welcomes the announcement by Ramaphosa that all nine million qualifying learners who have not yet returned to school will be provided with meals in line with the judgment of the Gauteng North High Court on 17 July.”

READ | High Court grants declaratory order to resume feeding scheme for eligible school learners

Earlier this month, the Gauteng High Court in Pretoria ordered the Department of Basic Education to roll out the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) to all eligible children, regardless of whether they returned to school or not, News24 reported. 

It came after Equal Education (EE) lodged an urgent application in which it argued that all eligible children should receive their daily meals from the programme.

“The SAHRC’s support for the resumption of the NSNP is supported by the finding of a large-scale study (NIDS-CRAM) conducted in April and May 2020 of the increasing cases of hunger among children. In the sample of 7 000 respondents, 21% reported that someone in the household had gone hungry in the last seven days and in households with a child, 15% respondents reported that a child had gone hungry in the last seven days.”

Long-term effect of closures ‘devastating’

However, the SAHRC said it regretted that Ramaphosa’s announcement suggested that the continued closure of schools “constitutes a ‘break’ for teachers and learners”. 

“A growing body of international and local research provides evidence of the devastating and long-term effects for young children not reading and writing for extended periods. The SAHRC will therefore focus on access to food and learning materials for learners at schools and for those waiting to return to schools.”

The SAHRC said that from 3 August, it would monitor the provision of food to qualifying children in all grades and the provision of learning materials at the same time as providing food. 

“In doing so, the SAHRC [will] seek expertise and guidance on these and other issues,” it said.

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