“Six reasons why schools must be open if we are to fight Covid-19” (My DM Op-ed)

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Nationwide lockdowns and school closures have incredibly high costs for families and children. Limiting Covid-19 infections must be a top priority, but it cannot come ‘at any cost’.

These are six main reasons why schools must remain open while implementing rigorous safety protocols and physical distancing:

  1. Schools provide essential meals to hungry children

When schools were open and operational, they provided a nutritious meal to 9 million children every day. Child hunger has more than doubled since the start of lockdown with 1-in-7 people reporting that a child went hungry in their household in the past week. The courts have ordered the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga to reinstate school feeding for all 9 million children immediately. Realistically, schools cannot provide meals to 9 million children if they are closed. While children do not get severely ill from Covid-19, they are at risk of suffering from stunting and malnutrition.

2. You cannot reopen the economy without reopening schools

There are 4.5 million essential workers in South Africa and 650,000 healthcare workers who are on the frontline of dealing with the pandemic. If schools are closed, what happens to their children while they are at work? We compromise the healthcare system if schools are closed. Furthermore, we have already lost 3 million jobs during 2020, plunging more than 1 million people into food poverty. Parents cannot go back to work if schools are closed.

3. There is no evidence that schools lead to above-average Covid-19 infections among teachers or pupils

It is true that some teachers have been infected with Covid-19, but it is also true that many teachers were infected even before schools reopened. Teachers are more likely to get infected in their community than at school. An analysis of 709 Gauteng schools shows that Covid-19 infection rates are no higher among teachers than similar people in the Gauteng population. Put differently, just because teachers get infected does not mean they got it at school. Further evidence comes from hospital admission data from the Western Cape during its Covid-19 surge and provides reassuring evidence. Opening schools had little impact on children getting infected with Covid-19 or getting admitted to hospitals.

4. Medical experts and advisors are saying that children returning to school is what is in the best interests of the child

The South African Paediatric Association, the Ministerial Advisory Committee and the South African Human Rights Commission have all stated clearly that they believe that children returning to school is in the best interests of children. The costs of being locked up at home (potentially alone), are far greater than the small risks they face at school. Children do not get severely ill from Covid-19. Those under the age of 20 make up less than 1% of total Covid-19 deaths in SA.

5. The World Health Organisation’s recommendation must be contextualised to South Africa

When the WHO is making recommendations, it is doing so for 195 countries. But there is no one size fits all approach. What makes sense for Germany might not make sense for Malawi. What makes sense in South Korea does not make sense in South Africa. They do not have 1 million stunted children, widespread HIV and TB, school feeding schemes etc. South Africa’s own epidemiologists are advising that schools must stay open if we are to fight the pandemic.

6. School closures will increase inequality

Only 20% of households have a computer and 10% have an internet connection. Closing schools will increase inequality between rich and poor for the next 10 years. Elderly teachers with serious comorbidities should be replaced in schools. Schools that do not have adequate masks and sanitisers should remain closed until they do, but closing all schools will hurt the poor much more than temporarily closing the 10-20% of schools that are not yet ready to open.


Teacher unions are undermining our pandemic response. All other government officials as well as those in the private sector have gone back to work and implemented physical distancing, wearing masks etc. But somehow teachers are different? The evidence is showing that teachers are not at higher risk than others and yet they are being paid whether they work or not. By refusing to work, they are risking the lives of children and undermining other parts of society that rely on schools at this critical time. By forcing parents to choose between going to work and taking care of their children at home, they are weakening our ability to fight the pandemic.

The question is not: “When is it safe to reopen schools?” The question is: “Does the cost of closing schools outweigh the benefits?” We should not implement a nationwide lockdown again and we should not implement nationwide school closures either. The costs to children and their families are simply too great, and importantly, fighting the pandemic needs all hands on deck and schools need to be open for that to happen. Limiting Covid-19 infections must be a top priority, but it cannot come “at any cost”.


This article first appeared in the Daily Maverick on the 22nd of July.

9 responses to ““Six reasons why schools must be open if we are to fight Covid-19” (My DM Op-ed)

  1. There you go. Keep going Boet. e


  2. christinedownton

    Excellent piece Nic.
    You are a model of written communication!

    From: Nic Spaull
    Reply to: Nic Spaull
    Date: Wednesday, 22 July 2020 at 11:29
    To: Christine Downton
    Subject: [New post] “Six reasons why schools must be open if we are to fight Covid-19” (My DM Op-ed)

    Nic Spaull posted: ” Nationwide lockdowns and school closures have incredibly high costs for families and children. Limiting Covid-19 infections must be a top priority, but it cannot come ‘at any cost’. These are six main reasons why schools must remain open while implement”

  3. Elze Ollerenshaw

    Hi Nick , no medical or other expert can replace my responsibility as a parent to keep my child safe.
    I lost my job because of lockdown, so i need to work as much as every other parent.
    Someone i worked with in 2011 gave my daughter her old phone so she could have internet access. We could not afford to pay for data, so our neighbors gave my child access to their wifi. When it was difficult for her to do school work on her old phone, we could not afford to buy a tablet or a laptop. My sister offered to buy my child a tablet on her credit card, i repay her with my childs grant.
    I chose not to send my child to school, because if she gets gets sick and dies all the theories in the world could not replace my child.
    I also chose not to expose my daughter to the 3 taxis we would have to take to get her to school and back home .
    So right now as an unemployed 52 year old white widow and single parent for the last 13 years, i am the expert on what is right for my child.

  4. Well said Nic, I don’t think there was a better way of articulating the facts about keeping the schools open. You are a true advocate.

  5. Kaathima Ebrahim

    Hi Nic,

    I’ve subscribed to your newsletter for a few years. But I have to say, your recent rush to publish as many articles as possible to persuade everyone that schools should remain open has been very disturbing. Your agenda is very clear, and it’s become irresponsible for you to use your power to push something so important given, which is becoming clearer day by day, that you truly don’t know the important things about the education system and know and care little about people or about democracy.

    You use research and statistics irresponsibly and inconsistently to push your agenda – for example, you only ever quote statistics that speak to your opinion that schools should be open, but then ignore others that share real experiences of why it should be closed. I need to be clear, I am not convinced of either argument yet, but I feel that honest and real discussion and dialogue is important, and not just pushing your opinion down our throats.

    In your latest article on 6 reasons why schools should remain open, you use one reason as “WHO isn’t relevant to everyone”, yet, you are quick to use WHO recommendations, or other international recommendations that have no evidence of being relevant to SA when it suits you! You’ve often also spoken about children not being as prominent in spreading the virus (which is information gathered in high income countries) to push for schools to remain open, yet these statistics don’t take into consideration SA’s TB/HIV/etc statistics either, so why should we consider that as advice on why we should open?

    The WHO has also said that schools should reopen only in contexts where infections are under control – do you consider infections in SA under control? I bet you’re going to use your point number 3 to argue that they are. Everyone knows that testing has been reduced, so the numbers of positive cases is NOT a true reflection of the cases in SA. We cannot say that infections haven’t increased – they haven’t increased because testing has decreased.

    I find it so hard to believe that you believe the things that you write. This article is sloppy, ill-informed, irresponsible, and in bad taste. I won’t be unsubscribing from your newsletter because I feel it’s super important to know what white men sitting in their safe castles are whispering into the public’s ears.

    Have you ever even been to any of these schools? Have you ever walked into a school bathroom with the need to do not only do a number 1 and find broken toilet bowls and no doors? Do you even know what a classroom with 60 children even looks like? More than that, have you ever even spoken to a teacher who works at these schools, whose anxiety is causing them to rather want to be dead? Have you spoken to any parents whose afraid that their children will kill themselves because of their fear and anxiety of being at schools?

    That being said, I’d like to invite you to one of the schools whose opinions should matter more than yours – you need to learn what you’re writing about (because you clearly have no clue). Please do consider my invitation.

    Kind regards,

  6. Jennifer Shindler

    Hi Nic. Is the analysis or report on the Gauteng schools that you refer to in point 3 publicly available?

  7. Jennifer Shindler

    Hi Nic. Is the article or analysis that you mention in point 3 on the 709 Gauteng schools, publicly available?

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