By Prof Kate Alexander and Prof Narnia Bohler-Muller
60% of adults say that schools 'should not reopen this year'. This was a key finding from a survey conducted by researchers from the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC).
The figures will come as a blow to the government, as it continues to ponder what to do about schools. It may want to reconsider its present policy.
The research team decided to release details in advance of their full-report in order to inform the national and policy debate that has become intense. But scientific validity has not been sacrificed. The results are representative at a national level, having been weighted by race, age and educational level.
This article first appeared in the Daily Maverick on 22 July 2020. Respondents were asked: 'Schools have begun to re-open, which one of the following statements comes closest to your view.' Only 13% agreed that 'Schools should re-open for all grades', the government's position, and 21% said that 'schools should re-open for Grade 7 and Grade 12 learners only. The remainder were in the 'don't know' category. Excluding the 'don't knows' the proportion opposed to schools re-opening rises to 64%, with only 14% backing the government's position. Confidence intervals have been calculated and are included in the table below.
Support for re-opening of schools, by overall frequency
|Schools have begun to re-open, which one of the following statements comes closest to your view?||Percentage||Lower bound (95% CI)||Upper bound (95% CI)|
|Schools should re-open for all grades||13.1%||10.9%||15.8%|
|Schools should only re-open for Grade 7 and Grade 12 learners||21.1%||16.9%||25.9%|
|Schools should not re-open this year||60.4%||55.8%||64.8%|
|Total||100.0%|| || |
Statistics are taken from the first phase of Round 2 of the UJ/HSRC COVID-19 Democracy Survey. The questionnaire was on-line from 3 July at 08:52 to 17 July at 14:01. Questions were asked in the country's six most widely spoken languages. The sample size was 2,569.
Attitudes towards opening of schools varied considerably by income. While 61% with incomes of less than R20,000 a month were opposed to schools re-opening, the figure for those earning more than R20,000 is only 41%, a difference of 20 percentage points. The details appear below.
Support for re-opening of schools, by individual income per month
|Schools have begun to re-open, which one of the following statements comes closest to your view?||Less than R1,001||R1,001 to R2,500||R2,501 to R5,000||R5,001 to R20,000||More than R20,000||(Don't know / refused)||Total|
|Schools should re-open for all grades||13%||9%||11%||17%||37%||13%||14%|
|Schools should only re-open for Grade 7 and Grade 12 learners||18%||26%||27%||16%||14%||18%||21%|
|Schools should not re-open this year||67%||61%||55%||58%||41%||65%||60%|
The public's low level of support for children returning to school should be read alongside a key finding from Round 1 of the UJ/HSRC survey, which showed that 79% were 'very concerned' that the 'coronavirus situation will have a negative impact on [their] child's education'.
Round 1 lasted from 13 April to 11 May 2020.
Parents from poorer backgrounds were especially worried. 87% of adults with monthly incomes of less than R20,000 were 'very concerned', but only 52% of those with earning more than R20,000 gave the same response. Clearly, parents value possible loss of lives over their children's education, with this especially pronounced among poorer parents.
These figures probably reflect the reality that poorer people are more likely to reside in so-called hotspots, where their material circumstances place them at greater risk. Wealthier parents can take solace from the fact that their children attend better resourced schools, and a high proportion can benefit from online teaching.
It is also possible that employment is a factor. High, and massively increased, unemployment in lower-income households,means that childcare is usually available, even if other considerations make on-line teaching impossible or less effective. By contrast, working from home is more common in better-off holds, and child care and home education may be detrimental to work responsibilities.
There are also some large differences when the findings are cross-tabulated with party allegiance. This is shown in the table below.
DA supporters are more likely to agree with re-opening of schools for all grades, followed by the ANC and then the EFF. This may reflect income differences among the parties' potential voters. Nevertheless a majority from all three parties was opposed to schools re-opening.
Support for re-opening of schools, by party allegiance
|Schools have begun to re-open, which one of the following statements comes closest to your view? ||ANC||DA||EFF||Another party||Would not vote||(Don't know / refused)||Total|
|Schools should re-open for all grades||11%||24%||8%||23%||14%||16%||14%|
|Schools should only re-open for Grade 7 and Grade 12 learners||30%||11%||25%||18%||13%||15%||21%|
|Schools should not re-open this year||56%||55%||64%||55%||65%||63%||59%|
Men were more likely to have a negative view of schools re-opening, with 63% opting for this position compared to only 57% of women. See table below.
Support for re-opening of schools, by gender
|Schools have begun to re-open, which one of the following statements comes closest to your view?||Men||Women||Total|
|Schools should re-open for all grades||14%||12%||13%|
|Schools should only re-open for Grade 7 and Grade 12 learners||17%||26%||21%|
|Schools should not re-open this year||63%||57%||60%|
Among women, there was substantial difference between those with children in their household and those without. This is shown below. While 63% of women with children were opposed to schools re-opening, the number fell to only 42% of women without children in their household.
These findings on gender are important and require further research.
Support for re-opening of schools, by gender and children in household
|Schools have begun to re-open, which one of the following statements comes closest to your view?||Male, no children in household||Male, children in household||Female, no children in household||Female, children in household||Total|
|Schools should re-open for all grades||9%||17%||19%||10%||14%|
|Schools should only re-open for Grade 7 and Grade 12 learners||19%||15%||33%||23%||21%|
|Schools should not re-open this year||65%||62%||42%||63%||60%|
Based on the findings of this research we are concerned about growing separation between public opinion and government policy, as this makes it more difficult for the President and his ministers to assuage fears linked to the rapidly advancing level of infection. There is already evidence of declining trust in the government and growing tensions within communities.
Given the differences between people on higher incomes, above R20,000, the government's present position is likely to intensify the class divisions manifest in this and several other survey questions, thus undermining the message that 'we are all in this together'. The division between unions in private schools and in the public sector, which mirrors the division between poorer and wealthier parents, re-enforces the problem.
We are not persuaded that government policy on schools will have minimal impact on deaths or that keeping children at school will be good for the economy. Growing anguish about COVID-19 can impact adversely on a return to work and, thus, delay improving the state of the economy.
Our surveys also show that hunger is widespread and a major concern across society. Closing schools for teaching would make it easier to use them for orderly feeding schemes, with physically distanced queuing. This is a more pressing priority for most parents.
Findings were based on a date free online questionnaire hosted by the biNu Moya Messenger app. It can be seen and completed at https://hsrc.datafree.co/r/ujhsrc. The researchers will be downloading data and publishing further findings. This makes it possible to discern trends in people's experiences and opinions about COVID and lockdown. Readers are invited to complete the questionnaire.
A summary of the UJ/HSRC Round 1 findings and fuller explanation of methodology can be found here. Many analyses from this earlier survey were published in a series of 10 feature articles that appeared in Daily Maverick between 30 April and 20 May 2020:
Unlocking the public's preferences: What South Africans think of lockdown and policy responses
'We are getting cold': Lifting of clothing-sale ban comes not a moment too soon
Up in Smoke: Public reflections on decision to extend the ban on tobacco sales
Human rights remain essential during the Covid-19 crisis
Reopening of schools: Bold leadership and planning required
Calls for bolder action as lockdown exposes fault lines of inequality
'Hungry — we are starving at home'
President Cyril Ramaphosa's job performance
The hidden struggle: The mental health effects of the Covid-19 lockdown in South Africa
Class and the Covid-19 crisis: questions of convergence and divergence
*Professor Kate Alexander is Director of UJ's Centre for Social Change, and Professor Narnia Bohler-Muller, Divisional Executive of the HSRC's Developmental, Capable and Ethical State programme. This article first appeared in the Daily Maverick on 22 July 2020.