UN Secretary-General António Guterres has paid tribute to the resilience of students, teachers, and families in the face of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Marking the third International Day of Education Sunday, he said the coronavirus pandemic has forced institutions of learning to close its doors, adding when education is interrupted,” it affects everyone, and all of us pay the price.”

“We must also step up our efforts to reimagine education – training teachers, bridging the digital divide, and rethinking curricula to equip learners with the skills and knowledge to flourish in our rapidly changing world,” he said.

The UN chief said that as the world continues to battle the pandemic, education – as a fundamental right and a global public good – must be protected to avert a generational catastrophe.

“Let us commit to promoting education for all — today and every day.”

No child left behind

Guterres’ call was echoed by the South African education lobby group, Equal Education (EE), who further pointed out that learners from poorly resourced schools are at serious risk of being left behind in an era of remote learning.

“Many learners do not have devices to support learning from home. The focus on online learning as a way to support remote learning can widen inequalities between learners.”

Th education lobby group adding that their Equaliser survey from last year confirmed their concerns.

“The right to learning for all children must be protected.” 

EE said while the Deputy Minister of Basic Education, Reginah Mhaule, has said that access to online learning will be improved, they remain skeptical about how fast this will happen and how effective it will be.

UN agency UNESCO said it’s time to step up collaboration and international solidarity “to place education and lifelong learning at the centre” of the recovery efforts.

Even before the pandemic, the UN noted, some 258 million children and adolescents across the globe were out of school, the majority of the girls.

‘Non-negotiables’

Equal Education said the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and the provincial education departments (PEDs) must use this time leading up to the schools’ opening to ensure that the “non-negotiables are in place” so that schools can safely reopen.

“Right now, the DBE and PEDs owe the public a detailed briefing on school readiness. Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga and the Education MECs must also provide regular updates to the public on how schools are coping and are being supported by the government, once teachers and learners have returned to classrooms.”

More importantly, EE says, learners, teachers, and parents/guardians should not again, like last year, be left “anxiously wondering what is going on until the day before school gates reopen.”

“While the DBE’s briefing to Parliament last night provided important information on the reasoning behind the delayed reopening, it is unacceptable that the DBE did not provide members of Parliament (MPs) with updated information on school readiness and plans to address challenges between now and 15 February. The last time that the DBE presented on school readiness to MPs was November 2020!”

EE says most learners will be returning to schools that face the same inequalities that existed before the pandemic – schools with plain pit latrines, without reliable water supply, and overcrowded classrooms.

And while government will likely provide mobile toilets and water tankers as emergency temporary solutions, EE says the public must be given detailed information on the number of schools that are in need of these basics and the progress of the education departments in providing them.

The ‘non-negotiables’ according to EE are:
Access to personal protective equipment (PPE) 
– Reliable water supply
– Safe and clean toilets
– Classroom space

“The DBE cannot assume that information presented to MPs last year is enough to give the public confidence that schools are ready to reopen in February – especially since the DBE’s last infrastructure presentation showed the infrastructure backlogs that must be fixed.”

“It is because of the government’s failure to properly comply with the Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure since 2013, that learners and teachers at thousands of schools now during this pandemic do not have enough water, safe and dignified toilets, or classroom space.”

EE said they will continue to agitate for their longstanding demands on school infrastructure, scholar transport, school nutrition, and school safety to be met to ensure that the “right to basic education is realised for all learners.”

“Schools must not just be COVID-19 compliant, they must be environments that protect the dignity and safety of learners and school staff, and that is conducive to quality teaching and learning.”

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Presh JM Reporter

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