Mathanzima Mweli, director general of the department of basic education, says in court documents it will cost about R22 billion if tuition is not resumed now and pupils have to repeat the school year.
Mweli responded to the application of Mmusi Maimane and his movement, One South Africa (One SA), in the Pretoria High Court that the decision of Angie Motshekga, the Minister of Basic Education, to reopen schools as unconstitutional, invalid and irrational and that the decision must be set aside. Motshekga opposes the application.
Most Grade 12 and Grade 7 pupils returned to school on Monday, while schools in the Western Cape opened a week earlier.
The Johannesburg Constitutional Court last Friday denied that Maimane and One SA could challenge the government’s decision to reopen schools on an urgent basis. The court said the applicants do not have a strong case for direct access to the court.
Maimane then approached the high court. He states in his oath that the decision to reopen the schools violates millions of children’s right to life, health, dignity and equality.
He says although many plans have been formulated to reduce the risks associated with the reopening, it looks good on paper only and is unlikely to work at grassroots level or be properly implemented.
“Similarly, the proposed piecemeal reopening of schools, depending on box-ready readiness, will inevitably lead to more affluent schools reopening long before schools can reopen in poorer communities or vandalized schools,” his statement says.
Mweli says in his opposing statement that the department has put in place comprehensive plans and that there is no doubt that the pupils should return to school because the majority of pupils do not have access to online education.
“If the applicants’ approach is followed, millions of pupils will be deprived of education and their individual, fundamental right to basic education will be violated while we wait for the ideal situation in which schools will be in a position to open jointly.
“The closure of schools also had several other detrimental consequences and implications, not only for the pupils, but also for the parents and the wider community. As a result, many parents were unable to return to their workplaces and earn an income they urgently needed, ”states Mweli’s statement.
He says keeping schools closed will deepen the inequalities between affluent and poor pupils because affluent pupils have access to online education and can afford data for it. In addition, 80% of pupils receive meals at the school.
He further argues that a strong argument can be made that children should attend school precisely because of Covid-19.
“A school that is prepared, disinfected and prepared for Covid-19 conditions, in many cases, provides a relatively safer environment – especially where children from mostly previously disadvantaged communities possibly because of their deplorable and overcrowded living conditions, without regard to the current restrictions often venture into the community on a daily basis. “
He also says it is clear from available data that children not only rarely show symptoms of Covid-19 but also rarely contract or transmit the virus.
According to the department, about 1.1 million matriculation students will write the matric exam at the end of this year.
Mweli believes it will put pressure on the education system and infrastructure if schools cannot be resumed and pupils have to repeat the year, as new pupils will enter the system without any other pupils leaving the system.
He said it would cost R22 billion just to build classrooms for the additional pupils.
“Then we haven’t even considered the furniture, staff and operational funding.”
According to him, the department has no money for this and if education does not continue this year, it could jeopardize the right to education for the next few years.
Mweli also says that Maimane and One SA were waiting to submit their application, as Motshekga announced the plan to reopen schools in June as early as April 30. He says the provincial education MECs also had to be added to the application as respondents because they have a direct and substantial interest in the matter.
According to him, it is not feasible, practical or legally permissible to keep all schools closed until all applicants are satisfied with each school’s readiness. He also asks that a costs order be made against Maimane and One SA.
Several similar cases against Motshekga and the education department have failed, including an application by the Educators Union of South Africa (Eusa) to close schools, which was dismissed earlier this week by the Pretoria High Court.
Maimane and One SA asked the court to hear the application on Wednesday.