Children in South Africa began returning to classrooms on Monday as part of a gradual loosening of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions even as some parents worried not enough had been done to protect the health of pupils.
The reopening of schools was delayed after teachers’ unions urged school staff to defy the government order last week, saying schools lacked sufficient health and hygiene measures to keep educators and pupils safe.
South Africa, the continent’s most industrialised nation, has recorded nearly 50,000 cases of the new coronavirus - the most of any African country - along with almost 1,000 deaths.
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said on Sunday that ramped-up efforts to equip schools over the past week meant that 95% of South Africa’s primary and secondary schools were now able to host classes, and the biggest teachers union dropped its resistance to the reopening.
“The golden rule is there will be no school that will resume if not ready to do so,” Motshekga said.
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The government will find alternative arrangements for pupils at schools unable to open on Monday, she said.
As children trickled through the gates of one primary school in Soweto, a township outside Johannesburg, their temperatures were taken at a makeshift health check-point.
Some parents, however, were not convinced.
Ntomizodwa Zitha said her children, worried they were falling behind, had convinced her to allow them to return to school.
“I let my child come today but tomorrow I won’t. It’s too dangerous,” she said. “They should have just cancelled the school year.”
One school official, who asked not to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the press, tried to assuage parents’ fears, assuring them that masks and gloves were being provided to children and classes were limited to 20 pupils.
“Today is just trial and error. We’re doing our best to deal with the parents’ frustrations,” he told Reuters. “We’re ready.”
Initially, only pupils in grades 7 and 12 will return to class; other years will be phased in gradually.
The shutdown has exposed deep divisions - between black and white, rich and poor - that persist in South Africa’s education system a quarter-century after the end of white minority rule.
Many government schools are in poor shape and analysts say that a quarter of them have no running water, making hand-washing nearly impossible. Others have been vandalised during a nationwide lockdown imposed by the government in March.
Government officials, however, worry that further delaying a return to classrooms would mean a generation of school children risks losing a key part of their education.