Unicef, the United Nations fund for children, has called on SA’s authorities to protect the country’s schools, even as hundreds of thousands of children face missing an entire year’s education. The fund issued a statement recently warning South Africa that pupils were between three-quarters to an entire year behind where they should be as a result of school closures during the pandemic combined with schools being vandalised.
Some 140 schools were vandalised in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng during the recent unrest, while a further 2,000 were vandalised and looted during the hard lockdown in 2020. That, coupled with school closures during the pandemic, has resulted in about 750,000 children who are now out of school.
“Rotational attendance, sporadic school closures and days off for specific grades have resulted in schoolchildren losing 54% of learning time,” said Unicef.
Some 400,000 to 500,000 learners have reportedly dropped out of school altogether over the past 16 months, the fund said. The latest National Income Dynamics Study — Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (Nids-Cram) report, a joint, wide-ranging survey that was released earlier in July and which analyses the vaccine rollout, child hunger and education dropout rates, employment, mental health and the ongoing plight of shack dwellers, found that dropout rates were at their highest levels in 20 years.
In a grim report that contained little good news, one positive trend was that the number of children attending early childhood development (ECD) programmes had recovered to almost pre-pandemic levels, according to data gathered in the final wave of the study. Of respondents living with children aged 0-6 at the time of the final wave interview, 36% reported that at least one child aged 0-6 had attended an ECD programme in the previous week, slightly down from the 39% level recorded in February 2020.
Unicef noted that school dropout rates were likely much higher for children living in rural areas or informal settlements, with household poverty playing a large role in keeping children out of the education system. While schools had made a rapid switch to “blended learning” as the pandemic forced their doors to close, many of the resources such as online classes along with radio and TV resources were not available for many children, said Christine Muhigana, Unicef SA representative.
“Remote learning has been a lifeline for some children but for the most vulnerable in SA, even this was out of reach. Access to the devices, data and skills necessary to navigate online resources are simply not possible for many children,” said Muhigana.
Unicef said it would support the basic education department in its efforts to ensure that communities were invested in and protected their schools as well as promoting remedial programmes to help students get back on track.
The fund said it was also critical that child-friendly Covid-19 protocols were maintained to keep teachers and staff safe, that schools improved hygiene facilities such as handwashing stations and that the “last mile” in Covid-19 vaccinations in the sector was covered as fast as possible.
Muhigana said it was critical to prioritise vulnerable children to keep them in classrooms.
“The reality is that SA 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,” she said.