Dilapidated school in South Africa

South Africa: COVID-19 pushes inequality in schools to crippling new level, risks a lost generation of learners

The COVID-19 pandemic has plunged South Africa’s schools further into crisis, exposing how the country’s education system continues to be shaped by the legacy of apartheid, Amnesty International said today.

A child’s experience of education in South Africa is still dependent on where they are born, how wealthy they are, and the colour of their skin

Shenilla Mohamed, Executive Director of Amnesty International South Africa

In a new report, Failing to learn lessons: The impact of COVID-19 on a broken and unequal education system, the organization highlights how students from poorer communities have been cut off from education during extended school closures, in a country where just 10 percent of households have an internet connection. Meanwhile historic underinvestment and the government’s failure to address existing inequalities has resulted in many schools not having running water or proper toilets whilst struggling with overcrowded classrooms, meaning they cannot provide a safe learning environment amid the pandemic.

“A child’s experience of education in South Africa is still dependent on where they are born, how wealthy they are, and the colour of their skin. The COVID-19 pandemic has made a broken and unequal system even worse, putting students from poorer communities at a huge disadvantage. Remote learning is not an option for the vast majority,” said Shenilla Mohamed, Executive Director of Amnesty International South Africa.

“South Africa’s schooling system is so under-equipped that the pandemic has all but ended education for many students, especially those from already disadvantaged communities. Unless urgent access is taken, the future livelihoods of an entire generation will be at risk.”

Disturbing picture

Amnesty International’s report is based on extensive desk research, including analysis of statistical data and institutional studies and surveys, between March 2020 and February 2021.

The education system in South Africa continues to be shaped by the legacy of apartheid. Previous research by Amnesty International showed how many communities continue to live with the consequences of political and economic decisions made during the apartheid era where people were segregated according to their skin colour, with schools serving white communities much better resourced.

When schools first closed in March, for almost three months, the widespread lack of internet access needed for remote study was laid bare. Nationally, only 22% of households have a computer and 10% an internet connection. In North West and Limpopo provinces, only 3.6% and 1.6% respectively have access to the internet at home. By contrast, students from wealthier communities with computer access have been able to continue their education particularly through remote learning provided by better resourced schools.

Further school shutdowns came in July 2020 and January 2021. The closures not only interrupted learning, but also severely affected access to food for around nine million students who depend on school meals for their daily nutrition. The situation became so bad that NGOs were forced to go to court to compel the government to resume the National School Nutrition Programme.

Hazardous and unhygienic

When schools have been open, hazardous and unhygienic conditions have prevented them from meeting basic COVID-safe requirements. Thousands of schools in South Africa have no running water – more than half of schools in some regions. Social distancing is also impossible in many schools. One study by Stellenbosch University found that at least half of South African learners would not be able to comply with distancing rules due to overcrowded classrooms.

The government has failed to ensure that schools in poorer communities have the additional resources they need to provide a secure learning environment. As a result, many have had to shut down repeatedly due to high COIVD-19 infection rates.

The toll on staff needs also to be recognised. By the beginning of 2021 it was estimated that up to 1,700 teachers have lost their lives to COVID-19, more than 300 alone during the recent school holidays.

Drastic budget cuts are not the solution

Despite the clear evidence that school infrastructure and equipment can play a key role in ensuring safer learning environments, in June the government announced that it was planning to divert over R2 billion (US$ 0.13 billion) from the provincial education infrastructure grant. The recent medium-term budget statement revealed that, adjusted for inflation, the education budget will be reduced over the next three years with a cut of over 4% for this financial year.

Amnesty International is calling on the South African authorities to reverse that decision, and commit sufficient funds to address longstanding and ongoing infrastructure failings. These have not just been documented by Amnesty and other organisations but are also confirmed by the government’s own statistics. In March 2020, just before COVID-19 struck, it was reported that only 266 out of 3,988 schools that needed it had benefitted from the President’s own 2018 Sanitation Appropriate for Education (SAFE) campaign to address inadequate sanitation. 56% of South African head teachers reported in a survey conducted by the OECD in 2018 that a shortage of physical infrastructure is hindering their school’s capacity to provide quality instruction. Many of the deficiencies are in breach of the government’s own Minimum Norms and Standards for educational facilities.

Amnesty International acknowledges that guaranteeing access to education during a pandemic is not easy. It also acknowledges that the government has both put various procedures in place  and taken action to seek to ensure both some limited access to remote learning during lockdown and to protect the safety of learners and teachers when schools have reopened.

However, the government needs to do more from exploring further innovative ways to provide access to education for as many students as possible where schools are partially or totally closed due to the pandemic, to  ensuring that all schools have sufficient supplies of personal protective equipment such as masks and hand sanitizer, as well as clean water facilities. Above all it must commit sufficient resources to address the infrastructure crisis in schools which is continuing to undermine the goal of safe learning spaces for all young people.

In certain key areas, the government has failed to meet its obligation to provide equal and accessible education to ALL learners.

The Constitutional and international human right to quality education includes access to safe, clean and adequate school facilities

Shenilla Mohamed

“The Constitutional and international human right to quality education includes access to safe, clean and adequate school facilities,” said Shenilla Mohammed.

“However, this right is clearly being denied to too many learners across the country. Schooling in South Africa has operated on a two-tier system for far too long. Now is the time to take concrete action to ensure that every child in South Africa has equal access to education, during and after the pandemic.”