DA to approach courts to keep nation’s schools open - John Steenhuisen

Evidence is schools do not expose learners and staff to higher levels of risk than other places

DA to approach courts to keep nation’s schools open

The Democratic Alliance (DA) strongly opposes the decision by President Ramaphosa to close the nation’s public schools for four weeks. We will be approaching the courts, on the basis that it is politically rather than scientifically motivated and not in the best interests of South Africa’s 14 million schoolchildren.

The decision to close the nation’s schools for four weeks is irrational based on the available evidence which is that schools do not expose learners and staff to higher levels of risk than other places. Indeed, to quote Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga from her statement yesterday following the President’s announcement: “It is important to bear in mind that the latest opinions of the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC), medical and science experts, is that learners are better at school than in communities and homes where the infections are actually taking place.”

The ANC government has refused to open the MAC’s advisories to public scrutiny, precisely because the government’s decisions go against the advice of scientists. Professor Shabir Madhi, who serves on the MAC, confirmed yesterday that government had not taken their advice that schools should not be closed. He said: "I think it's a case of government deciding to take advice from the unions, rather than from the scientists, because the scientific community has been pretty uniform that there is very little reason to close the schools. The opening of the schools has got very little to do with the transmission of the virus and if anything, the closure of the schools is going to do more harm than good."

Another MAC member, Professor Glenda Gray, confirmed that the decision contradicted their advice and went against the scientific evidence, saying "We believed that it was the best thing for children to be at school because we do not believe that Covid-19 infection poses a risk to their health."

The decision to close schools is rather a result of the ANC capitulating to all-powerful teachers’ unions, in particular SADTU, who do not have the best interests of learners at heart. In bowing to this threatening interest group – a crucial component of the ANC’s political support base - the ANC is trampling on children’s constitutional right to education, which recognises that education is fundamentally important to a child’s health, food security, future earnings and safety.

The DA will not let children become another political football in the ANC’s game to entrench their power and access to state resources in the face of dwindling popular support due to their failure to deliver a better life for all.

Not only MAC advisors but also both the South African Paediatric Association and the American Association of Paediatricians have come out in strong support of schools being open. The latter cites “mounting evidence” that transmission of the coronavirus by young children is uncommon, partly because they are less likely to contract it in the first place.

Governing body associations, NGOs and medical specialists have argued to keep schools open, but these arguments have been swept aside on a wave of political expediency.

In the Western Cape, there is no evidence of mass spreading of the virus at schools. Indeed, not a single learner death has been reported to the Western Cape Education Department and covid mortality among the province’s teachers, at 0.07%, is not higher than for other essential workers. Over half of Western Cape schools have not reported a single positive case, and of those that have, the majority (72.4%) have only reported one or two cases at their school. Furthermore, it should be remembered that a case reported by a school does not necessarily mean that the individual was infected at the school.

In fact, organisations monitoring Western Cape schools have commented that learners practice better physical distancing and hygiene measures at school than they do outside school in the surrounding community (where they may be unsupervised as parents are at work).

The DA’s position remains that those parents who choose to keep their children out of school should be allowed to do so. Staff members who choose to stay home must accept a salary cut. If this were the case, it is doubtful that unions would be calling so loudly for schools to close.

The cost to closing schools is profound and will be borne by children and families for many years. Many children will drop out of school never to return, and many more will fall so far behind that they are never able to catch up. Inequality in our society will increase, as poorer families are not able to provide any at-home learning, while more resourced families will naturally do whatever is possible to continue their children’s education even while schools are closed.

Closing schools increases the risk of children – especially those from poorer families - being left home alone while parents are forced to return to work to sustain the family. Furthermore, surveys show that school closures raise levels of substance abuse, depression, fear, loneliness, domestic violence, and child abuse. Schools will be vandalized. As education is compromised, so poverty will go up, along with the suffering and loss of life that accompanies that. Let us be under no illusion: poverty kills.

The decision to close schools underscores the ANC’s indifference to the fate of South Africa’s children. It comes not even a week after the Pretoria High Court found that the basic education minister and the eight ANC provincial education heads had breached their constitutional duty by freezing the school feeding scheme. Schools closures will have a serious impact on the nutrition of vulnerable children, 2.5 million of whom experienced hunger even before the lockdown. Even if the schools feeding programme continues in line with the court order, many learners will not be able to get to school to collect food, especially in very rural communities.

After four weeks of school closures, the virus will still be there and infections will still be rising in some provinces. What happens then? Do we succumb meekly to extensions, even as government keeps on failing to build testing or treatment capacity?

In the Western Cape, infections are falling, so the government’s specious reasoning that schools should be closed because infections are rising does not apply to that province in any case, yet government has made no exception for the over one million learners there.

The ANC has targeted the nation’s schools for closure even as taxis are allowed to operate at full capacity and gatherings of up to 50 adults are allowed for funerals and religious services. This is not science, it’s politics.

Instead of an education and a bright future, the ANC is bequeathing our children debt, hunger, and ignorance. The DA will fight this every step of the way.  

Statement issued by John Steenhuisen MP - Leader of the Democratic Alliance, 24 July 2020