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Better safe than sorry — SA public remains sceptical about schools opening during the pandemic

Daily Maverick logo Daily Maverick 2021-07-28 Carin Runciman and Benjamin Roberts

Schools reopened on 26 July 2021 with the expectation that all primary school learners are expected to go back to school daily from Monday 2 August 2021, for the first time in over a year. The reopening of schools comes after the country was placed on adjusted level 4 on 28 June 2021 and schools were once again closed.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd © Copyright (c) Daily Maverick , All Rights Reserved

Carin Runciman is the Director of the Centre for Social Change, University of Johannesburg. Benjamin Roberts is a Research Director and Coordinator of the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS) in the Developmental, Capable and Ethical State (DCES) research division, HSRC.

The closure and partial closure of schools over the course of the pandemic has had a significant effect on education. A study by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) led by Dr Vijay Reddy has demonstrated that the pandemic-related school disruption has likely set the country back by an estimated five years in educational outcomes, and will compound existing educational inequalities.  

The move to fully re-open schools has been welcomed by the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (Fedsas) however, the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) has raised concerns about the readiness of some schools to reopen. But, what does the public think?

Findings from the University of Johannesburg/HSRC Covid-19 Democracy Survey shows that most of the public want to err on the side of caution when it comes to the issue of schools re-opening. 

Round 4 of the survey was conducted between 25 June 2021 and 12 July 2021, a time when there was an average of 18,314 new cases of Covid-19 per day. Participants were asked, “Given the number of Coronavirus cases at present, which option would you support?” Four possible answers were provided (see figure 1 below). 

[caption id="attachment_992272" align="alignnone" width="600"] chart, bar chart © Provided by Daily Maverick Views of South Africans surveyed on the subject of schools opening during the Covid-19 pandemic. (Graph: Supplied)[/caption]

Most (48%) supported that schools should be closed. 21% supported schools remaining open for all grades and 23% supported the partial opening for grade 7 and grade 12 learners only. 

These findings are consistent with previous rounds of the survey, which have found that the public seems to be risk-averse to opening schools during periods in which new infections are high. 

During round 3 of the survey (29 December 2020 - 6 January 2021), conducted in the midst of the peak of the second wave, 53% said schools should not reopen until the situation improves again. 19% said they should reopen for all grades and 19% said they should reopen for grades 7 and 12 only. 

Similarly, during round 2 of the survey, conducted between 3 July 2020 and 8 September 2020, the majority (55%) said that schools should not reopen at all during 2020. 

These findings demonstrate that support for closing schools during peaks of the pandemic has remained largely consistent over time. However, an interesting finding is that there is a growing social consensus on the issue. 

Last year in July 2020, we reported that views on school closures were shaped considerably by income. At that time, 61% of those with an income of less than R20,000 a month were opposed to schools reopening, compared to 41% of those earning R20,000 or more, a difference of 20 percentage points.

A year later, income no longer seems to shape views on school closures to the same degree. Now the support for closing schools until the situation improves again is largely consistent across income. Closure is supported by 48% of those within an income less than R20,000 a month and by 51% of those within an income greater than R20,000 a month. 

It is difficult to say precisely why the views of higher-income earners have become closer to that of lower-income earners. One possible explanation may lie in the extent to which there is a concern about the transmission of the virus at schools. 

At the beginning of June 2021, it was reported in Daily Maverick that as of 3 June there were 1,637 schools in Gauteng that had had positive Covid-19 cases. Indeed concerns about transmission at schools were reflected in some of the messages to the President that participants could send. 

Please close the schools as we have encountered a lot of cases, educators have infected the virus, making it a huge danger area in classroom. May we go back to a higher level, just to ease the spread of the corona. (Black African woman, 35-39 years, Gauteng).

Mr President our school learners are getting more infected by the day. Children are careless more than adults. We as at risk of getting the Covid.  Please be more strict with the Covid regulations. And close down schools. And provide student data. (Black African woman, 18-24 years, Eastern Cape).

Perceptions of the risk the pandemic poses shapes views on school closures. Those who favour closure are more likely to believe that the pandemic is likely to get worse in the next month, 52% of those who think the worst is yet to come favour closure compared to 42% of those who believe that the situation will remain largely the same. 

At previous points in the pandemic, parents have voted with their feet and kept their children out of school because of concerns about the virus. It remains to be seen whether the same will happen again. With the urgent need to avoid further educational disadvantage for the current generation of learners, and with the vaccination roll-out well underway with teachers and those aged 35 years and older, more may now need to be done to reassure parents that it is safe for their children to return to school. DM/MC

Carin Runciman is the Director of the Centre for Social Change, University of Johannesburg.  Benjamin Roberts is a Research Director and Coordinator of the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS) in the Developmental, Capable and Ethical State (DCES) research division, HSRC.

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