South African schools reopen after delay over COVID-19 variant

south african schools
Many township schools are crowded and teachers worry about social distancing -- supervising the pupils will be a difficult challenge. Source: Luca Sola/AFP

Masked first-graders excitedly chatted to each other at a Johannesburg school on Monday, trying to make friends, some even going to shake hands — but the coronavirus pandemic has put an end to that, at least for now. It was the first day back in South African schools after the continent’s hardest-hit country was forced to delay their reopening due to the emergence of a more virulent strain of the virus.

But before their usual lessons could take place, the little scholars had to learn the new normal: keep your distance, and no hugs or handshaking, please. The reopening comes as parents and teachers worry that not enough has been done to guard against infections.

south african schools

Students from Ithute Higher Primary School queue during the first day of the new academic year in Alexandra, Johannesburg. Source: Luca Sola/AFP

South Africa has recently emerged from its second wave, seeing the number daily cases drop from highs of 20,000 in early January to an average of 2,000 this month. Many township schools are crowded and teachers worry about social distancing — supervising the pupils will be a difficult challenge. “We have many kids in a class,” said Nhleko Bhekani, a social sciences teacher at Ithute Primary in Alexandra, a crowded northern Johannesburg township situated across the highway from Sandton, one Africa’s richest districts. Schools were originally planned to reopen in January, but the government pushed the date back by two weeks as infections soared, fuelled by the new strain that was identified in the country.

south african schools

A student from Ithute Higher Primary School is screened during the first day of the new academic year by school staff. Source: Luca Sola/AFP

South African schools: ‘Trust the system’

So far, South Africa has the highest prevalence of COVID-19 in Africa, recording close to 1.5 million cases of which more than 47,000 have been fatal. Kelebogile Ngwenya, 37, is both excited her son Monde is starting school and worried for his safety. “I just have to trust the system that they will take care of my child,” she said, standing about eight metres (26 feet) from a crowd of other parents milling outside the school gate, desperate to enrol their children. Around 70 students already attend each class in the school of 1,720 pupils, but more parents want to secure admission for their children.

south african schools

Students and their relatives queue in front of the entrance of the Ithute Higher Primary School. Source: Luca Sola/AFP

Education Minister Angie Motshekga on Sunday said that emphasis will be on “vigilance and strict adherence to the health and safety protocols, in order to save lives”. At least 1,169 teachers have died since the virus came to the country. Last year the government imposed class rotation, allowing students to take lessons in shifts. “I felt somehow stressed when I saw that learners are coming back and I am not sure how safe they are,” said Mduduzi Gwala, the principal at Ithute.