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COVID-19: The position of children in independent schools in South Africa

23 March 2020
– 3 Minute Read


On 15 March 2020, when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that all schools in South Africa had to close by 18 March 2020 in an attempt to flatten the COVID-19 curve, the question arose whether this measure would apply to independent schools. 

The uncertainty was short-lived. In the inter-ministerial media briefing on 16 March 2020, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga clarified, to an extent, the wide-ranging effect of the President’s direction, including its application to independent schools. 

The Minister noted that the ‘technical aspects’ of these measures would be addressed by ‘the concerned parties’.  This presumably meant that independent schools would be left to determine themselves how best to proceed within the limitations of the disaster management framework.

This framework is set out in Regulations in terms of the Disaster Management Act promulgated by Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma on the evening of 18 March 2020.  Regulation 6 provides that ‘[s]chools and partial care facilities must be closed by 18 March 2020 until 15 April 2020, which period may be extended for the duration of the national state of disaster by the cabinet member responsible’. Schools’ in the Regulations are defined as they are in section 1 of the South African Schools Act, 1996; that is, as ‘a public school or an independent school which enrols learners in one or more grades from grade R (Reception) to grade twelve’.

The practical effect of this, for now, is that schools must be physically closed until 15 April 2020.  However, Minister Motshekga may extend this until 15 June 2020, or even further if Minister Dlamini-Zuma extends the national disaster beyond the initial three-month period.

The Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa (ISASA) responded promptly to the new state of affairs. On 15 March 2020, it circulated a memorandum to its members recommending that schools ‘act decisively and close by no later than the required date of Wednesday, 18 March 2020’. 

Four-term independent schools can easily follow public schools’ adjusted calendar.  The situation in respect of three-term schools, however, is trickier.  Some three-term schools have moved immediately to implement distance learning programmes on various electronic platforms, and intend to maintain the same term schedule. Others have opted to take an earlier holiday, with calendars to be adjusted for more teaching later in the year, or with contingency teaching arrangements to be implemented later once teachers are amply prepared.

While schools continue to grapple with creative mechanisms for teaching and learning in these unprecedented circumstances, parents must be mindful that the South African Schools Act requires children between the ages of 7 and 15 (or grade 9) to be enrolled for school, even if they are not attending it.

Parents who withdraw their children from school without going through the process of enlisting for home schooling may therefore be liable for a fine or imprisonment for failure to enrol their children in school. 

It is possible that the Minister of Basic Education will, in due course, promulgate regulations aimed at addressing the challenges created by the present situation.  Meanwhile, school communities will, no doubt, devise innovative means, including the use of electronic platforms, to ensure that the culture of learning is maintained, and that effect is given to the contracts concluded between schools and parents.

For information on the impact of the school closures on the workplace, refer to the recent newflash written by Lusanda Raphulu and Talita Laubscher.