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As children return to their classrooms, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga announced that educators and schools had been prepared to reopen schools. “The sector continues to be committed and at all times, we are ready to maintain a balance between saving lives and livelihoods, while fighting the Coronavirus pandemic.”
However, amidst the positivity lies an unspoken issue, as recently highlighted by UNICEF. “The impact of disrupted education since the COVID-19 outbreak has been devastating, with learners between 75% and a full school year behind where they should be, according to latest statistics. Rotational attendance, sporadic school closures and days off for specific grades, have resulted in school children losing 54 percent of learning time.”
What’s more concerning, according to UNICEF, some 400,000 to 500,000 learners have reportedly also dropped out of school altogether over the past 16-months. This is most likely children living in informal urban and rural settings, with household poverty also playing a critical role. The total number of out of school children is now up to 750,000 young South Africans.
UNICEF South African Representative Christine Muhigana elaborates by explaining, “The reality is that South Africa cannot afford to lose another learner or another hour of learning time. It is urgent that we get every child back into the classroom, safely, now. Being out of school not only leads to learning loss”, but mental distress, exposure to violence and abuse, missed school-based meals and reduced development of social skills. As a result thereof, UNICEF explains that the skills needed to transition into working lives will be affected in the longer term. “Evidence also shows that when children are out of school, women are twice as likely to take on childcare responsibilities, affecting their ability to work or search for work.”
Furthermore, the switch to blended learning following the COVID-19 outbreak was quick and included rotational classes and access to online, radio, and TV educational resources. “Remote learning has been a lifeline for some children but for the most vulnerable in South Africa, even this was out of reach,” states Muhugana. However, access to the devices, data, and skills necessary to navigate online resources is simply not possible for many children. She adds, “We need to ensure that we prioritise vulnerable girls and boys in all our efforts to keep children in classrooms.”
The United Nations agency emphasises that the education system can’t afford any further shocks, such as the recent unrest resulting in more than 140 schools being vandalised in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. This comes on the back of the more than 2,000 schools looted and damaged during the hard COVID-19 lockdown last year.
Muhihana highlights, “The twin burden of COVID-19 and recent disruptions equally affects teachers, supporting and improving their well-being should be a priority. We are glad that the Department of Basic Education is hosting the first ever ‘Teacher Wellness Seminar’ and UNICEF is committed to provide its full support to the education sector.”
To keep every child in class, UNICEF is lending its support to the Department of Basic Education and partners in the ongoing efforts to:
- Promote community dialogues that engage parents, caregivers, and community leaders in school life, to increase their ownership over local schools, which in turn can help ensure their protection.
- Maintain adherence to the child-friendly COVID-19 standard operating procedures and protocols to keep children, teachers, and educational staff as safe as possible.
- Cover the last mile in further increasing COVID-19 vaccination coverage in the education sector.
- Continue improving access to handwashing facilities and hygiene promotion activities for all children. UNICEF and its partners will build on work that has already seen 400 handwashing stations installed in targeted schools that lack decent facilities.
- Promote and scale up effective remedial programmes to help students get back on track.
- Improve access to psychosocial support for children and educational staff to cope with the ongoing stress of COVID-19 and the recent unrest.
What are your thoughts on the massive dropouts, and what do you believe the impact will be long-term?
Share your views in the comment section below.