On 19 May 2020 South Africa’s Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, announced during a briefing that schools will be re-opening gradually from 1 June 2020. This was also confirmed by President Cyril Ramaphosa during his address to the nation on 24 May 2020. The current projection is that schools will re-open first for grade 7 and 12 learners, and thereafter learners from other grades will gradually return to school in phases on dates yet to be announced.
Taking into account the rising number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection, as well as the rising death rate in South Africa, this announcement by the Minister has caused many parents to feel understandably uneasy about the prospect of sending their little ones back to school. The question now beckons: am I allowed to keep my children at home?
The South African Schools Act, 84 of 1996 (the Act) lays the foundation in this regard. The Act, in Section 3(1) provides that parents must send their children to school from the first school day of the year in which the child reaches the age of 7 to the last school day of the year in which the child reaches the age of 15, or finishes the 9th grade.
The Act further provides that, should parents fail to send their children to school, the Head of Department may investigate the circumstances of the parents and the children and then issue a written notice to the parent requiring their compliance with Section 3(1) of the Act. Any parents who then, without just cause, still fails to comply are guilty of an offence and may be ordered to pay a fine or to endure imprisonment for a period not exceeding six months.
It could be that the term “just cause” is applicable in this instance as many parents would surely argue that refusing to send their children back to school at the moment is reasonable and constitutes “just cause”. In this regard, the Deputy Minister of Basic Education, Makgabo Mhaule stated during the same briefing on 19 May 2020 that parents who do not want to send their children back to school at this stage will not be forced to do so but parents are encouraged to register their children for home schooling.
The President also elaborated on this on 24 May 2020 and stated that no parents will be forced to send their children to school if they are worried about their children’s safety. Should parents intend to home school their children rather than sending them back to school, the following is of import to note:
- In deciding on homeschooling options, parents must ensure that their children are properly registered for a homeschooling programme which will provide formal certification at the end of the year. The said certification must confirm that the child has mastered the required content and skills to be able to advance to the next grade.
- To register for homeschooling, parents must apply to the head of their Provincial Education Department, who will consider the application. Many homeschooling programmes assist with this requirement, but the process to be followed is also clearly stipulated on the Department of Basic Education’s website.
- Parents must also keep in mind that should they then wish to send their children back to school in 2021, there are no guarantees that the school will accept their child - even if the learner attended the specific school prior to the initial lockdown period. Parents will be required to apply to the school for admission of their child and all such applications will be dealt with in terms of each school’s own admission policy. Admission may be refused for various reasons, including a lack of space.
This is clearly a difficult decision every parent now has to make and parents are advised to firstly engage with their children’s schools and obtain information of the safety protocols the school has implemented. Thereafter parents should research the available homeschooling options available and ensure that they pick a homeschooling program that meets the requirements established by the Department of Basic Education, which is also available on their website.
Parents should also keep in mind that as South Africa moves to the lower levels of the lockdown in the coming months, many parents may be required to go back to work full time and may not have the time they currently have to assist their children with their home-schooling activities.