Private and independent schools were well within their rights to resume their academic year, even while public schools have pushed back their reopening by two weeks because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
This is according to education deputy minister Makgabo Reginah Mhaule, speaking to parliament on Wednesday.
Protesting against this did not help anyone, she said, because the department’s policies — as well as the country’s constitution — allowed private schools to operate independently from public schools.
Mhaule was addressing MPs’ concerns during the basic education department’s appearance before the portfolio committee on education on Wednesday.
She said those accusing the department of creating two education systems in one country had it wrong.
“I know it sounds like we are opening a two-system country, but we are one country with one education system. But our own policies and constitution allow for the operation of independent and private schools, so we cannot today pretend that this is something new.
“We appreciate those who say ‘why don’t we have one school calendar’, but it is not something we can just change today because we have Covid-19. It is something that needs thorough consultation,” she said.
Mhaule was accompanied by basic education director-general Mathanzima Mweli, who tabled before the committee a presentation on how Covid-19 had affected the department as well as the marking of the matric exam papers for the 2020 academic year.
According to Mweli, 16,495 teachers had tested positive for Covid-19 since the outbreak of the pandemic 10 months ago, while more than 3,000 non-teaching education staff and 5,663 pupils contracted the virus.
Of these, 409 educators, 55 non-teaching staff and 10 had died.
The majority of the Covid-19 teacher fatalities were registered in the Western Cape, with 91 educators who succumbed to the coronavirus, while the Free State was the least affected — with three fatalities.
Of the pupils who died with Covid-19, Free State tops the list with four. Five provinces — Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Northern Cape and Western Cape — remain unscathed.
On progress made in the marking of matric exam papers, the department reported that all provinces would have completed the process by January 21.
Five provinces had completed marking ahead of schedule while four were wrapping up.
The department had finished marking before targeted dates despite the withdrawal of 2,463 markers because of Covid-19 and other reasons. Most of the markers who withdrew were in Gauteng (827) while Northern Cape had only 60 withdraw.
Only 0.7% of the markers tested positive for Covid-19, and seven of them succumbed to the disease.
Mhaule said the department had done relatively well in managing the effect of the pandemic on education.
As such, she disagreed with those proposing that schools remain closed until Covid-19 is no more.
“This pandemic is here, it is with us and we must learn to live with it. No-one knows when the virus will go,” said Mhaule.