Schools are due to re-open on 27 January while cases of COVID-19 continue to rise. Findings from Round 3 of the UJ/HSRC COVID-19 Democracy survey, undertaken by the Centre for Social Change, University of Johannesburg in partnership with the Development, Capable and Ethical State of the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), demonstrate the following;
- 53% of adults think schools should remain closed until the situation improves.
- 19% of adults believe that schools should re-open for grade 7 and grade 12 learners only.
- 19% of adults think schools should re-open for all grades/
- 9% of adults 'don't know'.
These findings come from the latest round of the UJ/HSRC COVID-19 democracy survey, which was conducted between 30 December 2020 and 6 January 2021. The online survey was completed by 10, 618 participants. Findings have been weighted to match Statistics South Africa data on race, education and age, and can be regarded as broadly representative of the population at large
The survey was conducted online using social media adverts to direct potential participants to the survey and through the popular #datafree Moya Messenger app, which has 2 million active users. Participants are able to respond to the survey #datafree on the app as well as through the following #datafree link, which has been enabled #datafree by biNu, the parent company of Moya.
Attitudes towards the opening of schools were consistent by gender. 52% of men and 53% of women believe schools should not re-open until the situation improves again.
Differences on whether schools should re-open differed by income, race and type of accommodation.
Those on lower incomes were more likely to oppose re-opening schools than those on higher incomes. 53% of those earning less that R1,000 a month were against schools re-opening, compared to 41% of those who earned over R20,000 a month, a difference of 12 percentage points.
Attitudes to the re-opening of schools also differed by race. Indian adults were the most strongly opposed to schools re-opening, with 77% saying that schools should not re-open until the situation improves. Coloured and Black African adults were also opposed. 63% of Coloured adults and 52% of Black African do not believe schools should re-open. In contrast, only 37% of white adults were opposed to the re-opening of schools.
Type of accommodation is also associated with people's views on the re-opening of schools. Those living in backyard shacks or rooms in townships were most strongly opposed to the re-opening of schools, 56%, compared to only 44% of those who live in a suburban house.
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 lasted from 13 April to 11 May 2020, that showed 79% of adults were 'very concerned' that the 'coronavirus situation will have a negative impact on [their] child's education'. Parents from poorer backgrounds were especially worried, so concern about re-opening of schools is not linked to interest in one's children's education. 87% of adults with monthly incomes of less than R20,000 were 'very concerned', but only 52% of those earning more than R20,000 gave the same response.
The new figures, and their breakdown by class, reflect inequalities in our society. Wealthier parents in suburbs can reasonably have greater confidence in the ability of their schools to provide a safe environment, compared to poorer parents in townships and informal settlements.
In July last year, in a similar context of rising infections, the government took the decision to postpone the re-opening of schools. It would be consistent for it to do so again.
At that time, the President's main argument was based on advice from the World Health Organisation (WHO) that infection among teachers and learners would spread to the community and vice versa, and that re-opening schools could lead to a further rise in cases. This assessment remains powerful, especially when there is evidence to suggest that the new 501Y.V2 variant of COVID-19 is more transmissible.
"The findings from the survey show that the majority of adults oppose the re-opening of schools while COVID-19 cases continue at their current high levels. This opposition is strongest amongst the most vulnerable and economically disadvantaged sections of society, who are less likely to have confidence in the ability of their schools to provide a safe environment for learners. These findings illustrate that although parents are deeply concerned about their children's education that they are equally, if not more, concerned about the safety of their children, their families and communities," says Professor Carin Runciman, UJ Associate Professor at the Centre for Social Change.