COVID-19: Are We Asking the Right Questions about ... Reopening Schools?

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on education systems around the world. It represents what the World Bank calls “the largest simultaneous shock to all education systems in our lifetimes”. The latest figures show that nearly 1.2 billion learners – more than two-thirds of all learners enrolled worldwide – are affected by the closing of schools globally. South Africa took early steps in this regard, with schools closing on 18 March 2020, merely 12 days after the first case was reported. The Department of Basic Education (DBE) has proposed a staggered reintroduction of public schooling, starting on 1 June. It is not clear, however, if this plan will be implemented effectively, as the levels of preparedness are reportedly low, while uncertainty around how opening schools will affect the spread of the virus remains high. This short report addresses two inter-linked questions about which we urgently need greater clarity. If schools cannot (or should not) reopen for all learners anytime in the near future, then how do we ensure that more learners are able to learn from home? On the other hand, if the vast majority of learners cannot learn at home, does that provide impetus for opening schools sooner rather than later? The report lays out the debate on these two critical questions.