The Basic Education Department says it ready to welcome learners to school under safety protocols although over 20 000 are still not placed.
The academic year 2021 officially commences today for millions of learners as public schools stalled to return to classes due to the second wave of COVID-19.
Speaking during the state of readiness on Sunday, Minister Angie Motshekga emphasised the health and safety of teachers, staff and learners, which she said remains at the top of the priority list.
“We emphasise the critical importance of vigilance and strict adherence to the health and safety protocols, in order to save lives,” she explained.
The Minister said the impact of the Coronavirus continues to affect the department, with at least 1 169 educators having passed away as a direct result of COVID-19.
This year alone, up until 12 February, the department lost 159 teachers and 63 non-teaching staff.
“This is really heartbreaking and we convey our sincere condolences to the affected families,” she said, before observing a moment of silence for the deceased.
The Minister said her department would continue to maintain the “delicate” balance between health and safety while paying great attention to curriculum gaps identified last year.
“Senior managers in the sector, under the leadership of the Director-General, have been working very hard to strengthen the already existing plans for 2021.”
Meanwhile, the Minister said the demand for space in schools, especially in Grades 1 and 8 remains a challenge.
“All provinces are experiencing a high demand in particular areas,” she told the media.
While progress has been made, the department stated that 8 982 Grade 1s are still not placed as their peers start school today, while 16 117 are those meant to start Grade 8.
“The Council of Education Ministers (CEM) met yesterday [Saturday] and agreed the matter of school admission was identified as critical because the system cannot afford to see any learners being left behind.”
The Council is said to be looking into the matter and working around the clock ensure that all learners are placed in the next coming week.
“CEM appeals to parents and guardians to cooperate with officials at the district level, to accelerate the placement process.”
Several schools closed
Meanwhile, several schools in the Eastern Cape, Limpopo and Mpumalanga were affected by the Eloise Tropical Cyclone and could not open on 25 January when principals went back to work.
Also, 1 724 schools have been vandalised since lockdown, the department added.
The Minister has since thanked the social partners, business and the community for supporting the sector as it continues to operate under difficult conditions.
“These COVID-19 circumstances require the entire nation to support its children and indeed cooperate and support schools on a sustainable basis.”
He called on people to continue to adhere to the health and safety protocols by wearing masks, sanitising, washing hands with water and soap, social distancing and avoiding large gatherings.
“I urge every one of us, to play our part in keeping our communities safe and healthy.”