South Africa on Friday delayed the start to its new school year by two weeks to Feb. 15, in order to prevent schools becoming transmission centres for COVID-19, as new cases have hovered around 20,000 a day for the past week.
School was out for about a third of last year, when South Africa was in the grip of its first wave of coronavirus infections. The closures widened an already stark educational divide between elite schools that easily shifted classes online and the rest with little or no capacity for digital learning.
“CEM (council of education ministers) took this difficult decision, having considered all factors … regarding the current state of the health system,” Deputy Basic Education Minister Reginah Mhaule told a news conference in the capital Pretoria.
“We need to take care of the lives of teachers and … of learners,” she said. South Africa has reported more than 35,000 deaths from COVID-19, the highest in Africa. The start of the school year, which had already been scheduled two weeks later than normal, on Jan. 27, would be delayed for two more weeks.
Mhaule said the minister herself, Angie Motshekga, was unwell at home but recovering, declining to answer a question about whether she had COVID-19.
Like much else in South Africa, education remains divided between a top 10% of schools that have world-class teaching and facilities for the well-heeled, and the poor majority.
Many of the latter were built under apartheid in predominantly black townships and rural areas, and suffer from overcrowding and poor internet access. For most of those, school simply stops when the pupils can’t come into class.
“We are working very hard to improve on the e-learning,” the deputy minister said. “We still have difficulties in rural areas, where we have a challenge of connectivity, but we are working with all service providers … to improve (it).”