About 650 000 to 750 000 children aged seven to 17 years old were not attending school by May this year, compared to the average 400,000 – 500,000 number before the Covid-19 pandemic.
This is according to the National Income Dynamics Study — Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM) released on Thursday.
Nompumelelo Mohohlwane, co-author of the study and researcher at the Department of Basic Education (DBE) said since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, children have been put at greater risk of dropping out of school.
Moholwane said as a result of the pandemic, children are lagging behind at school and have lost many learning hours.
Adding that the pandemic has also led to increased food insecurity and emotional health deterioration.
Debra Shepherd, co-author of the study and senior lecturer at Stellenbosch University said the study estimates that between March 2020 and June 2021 most primary school learners in South Africa lost 70% to a full year of learning.
“Between February 15 and 30 June 2021, schools were open for a total of 93 days.
“Assuming that learners would have received in-person instruction for half of these days and taking our previous estimate of 50-75% of a year of learning lost for each 120 days of schooling lost, we estimate that as much as a full year of learning has been potentially lost by the majority of learners since March 2020,” said Shepherd.
Mohohlwane added that the disruptions to the school year caused by the pandemic have played a major role in children not returning to school. She said this is because children have had to learn from home for certain periods of time due to national Covid-19 precautionary measures.
Mohohlwane said the lowest return to schools was observed in the Free State (87%) and Eastern Cape (92%).
She said the highest number of dropouts are Grade 8 and 9 learners, followed by the Further Education and Training (FET) phase (Grade 10-12), and then the foundation phase.
Prior to the Covid-19 school closures, South Africa, like most developing countries, had achieved near universal school enrolment.
The Covid-19 pandemic led governments to enforce various restrictions to economic and social activities. One of the sectors that has been the most affected since the onset of the health emergency has been pre-primary, primary, and secondary education.
Research shows that more than a year after the World Health Organisation (WHO) proclaimed the outbreak of Covid-19 a pandemic, many learners continue to experience either partial or complete school closures.
In November 2020, when asked about the attendance of young people living in their household, approximately 95% of adults reported that all learners in their household had recently attended school.
Research shows that this number has declined to 90% in April 2021.
“That is, as many as 750,000 children may now not be attending school.
“We can therefore conclude that disruptions in schooling have contributed to significant reductions in school enrolment,” said Mohohlwane.
She added that a decline in the attendance rate amongst this age group (7 to 17) fell from 98% to 94.2%.
Most households also reported that at least one learner had not returned to school in 2021.
Merle Mansfield, programme director of the Zero Dropout Campaign said despite South Africa’s large investment in basic education, around 40% of Grade one learners will exit the schooling system before finishing matric. Many will remain stuck in poverty and unemployment for life, she said.
In response to the increasing number of learner dropout rates during the pandemic, the Zero Dropout Campaign said the government needs to implement an effective catch-up plan for learners.
Mansfield said before the pandemic, schooling was already characterised by too little learning, high levels of inequality, and regular disruption.
“Now, more than ever, we need a national, comprehensive response to school dropout that includes a national catch-up strategy attuned to the diverse needs of learners.
“We need to meet learners at their level and respond to their needs. Where possible, plans to recover lost learning, through accelerated catch-up programmes, should be tailored to learners’ needs, rather than their age or grade,” said Mansfield.