COVID-19 and the surge of absenteeism in SA schools


The impacts of COVID-19 on Africa’s long-term development have been devastating. The Institute for Security Studies reports that probably up to a decade’s worth of human development has been wiped out.

Of particular concern is how children’s education might suffer in this bizarre new normal. South Africa’s 5% decrease in Grade 12 pass rates shows that education has been a casualty of the pandemic. According to the forecast presented here, however, the worst impacts may still be coming, unless the surge in dropouts caused by COVID-19 can be addressed.

In 2020, South African schools were closed between March and June, and again in August. While partial reopenings provided additional days of schooling for key grades, particularly 7 and 12, the closures cost children between 30 and 59 school days.

Schools serving wealthier communities offered online learning but this wasn’t an option for those in the poorest areas, particularly no-fee schools that accommodate upwards of 66% of South Africa’s learners. Parents of these children cannot afford school fees, let alone IT equipment, data costs or private tutors.

Education experts expect many of the COVID-19 related absentees to become dropouts

But even after lockdowns and closures ended, many haven’t returned to class. In November 2020, South Africa’s Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga reported that up to 300 000 learners were missing from public primary schools after they reopened. She said her department had encouraged students to return via ‘SMS, local radio stations, and home visits’ as well as a ‘demerit system’ for absent students.

By January 2021, the department’s Director-General Mathanzima Mweli reported that about 15% of public-school students (both primary and secondary), almost two million children, hadn’t returned after lockdowns in 2020. Education experts expect many of the absentees to become dropouts. Perhaps hardest hit will be those in the upper grades of secondary school.

Stellenbosch University’s Prof Servaas van der Berg last year referred to survey data indicating that matric students had lost about a quarter of their final year, while 88% hadn’t returned to school by July. Education quality is also likely to be impacted, with less interaction time, fewer teaching days and the loss of over 2 000 teachers to COVID-19 itself.

Using the University of Denver’s International Futures forecasting platform (IFs), we can estimate some of the effects of the dropout surge. In a COVID-19 Absenteeism Scenario, we adjusted primary school enrolment and survival rates (the percentage of students who complete primary education relative to the number who started Grade 1), so there were about 300 000 fewer children enrolled in 2020.

COVID-19-related dropouts alone could reduce SA’s 2032 GDP by about US$2.6 billion

Then from 2021, we increased primary school enrolment rates over the next three years to absorb the many missing learners. The increase was based on the assumption that most parents will send their children back to school as the pandemic subsides, and government’s campaign to get learners into the classroom will deliver positive results.

If the COVID-19 Absenteeism Scenario is compared to the Current Path trend (what we could have expected before the increase in dropouts), enrolment figures only return to the Current Path trajectory by 2027.

After 2027, enrolments are higher than they would have been before the dropout surge scenario. This is likely as schools deal with inflated numbers to catch up grade repeaters and students left behind during the pandemic, putting further strain on an overstretched public education system.

Enrolment headcount – primary school

Enrolment headcount – primary school

Source: IFs v 7.61, initialising from UNESCO’s data for the Sustainable Development Goals.
(click on the graph for the full size image)

For secondary school students in the COVID-19 Absenteeism Scenario, we decreased graduation rates of lower secondary school by approximately 5%, and upper secondary school by 3% in 2020 compared to the Current Path.

This is also an approximate 5% drop from 2019, proportionate with the decrease in pass rates reported this year. Graduation rates almost return to normal by 2022, assuming the pandemic ends, or is adapted to.

Finally, we apply a 5% decrease to average quality of education in primary and secondary education which recovers to a 1% decrease in 2023 and returns to normal by 2032.

Today’s class of Grade 1 learners should seek tertiary education or enter the job market in 2032. The dropout surge scenario results in a decline of nearly two months on average in mean years of education for the 20-29 age group by 2032. South Africa would only start recovering from this in 2032, and then only gradually in an L-shaped recovery.

Mean years of eductaion

Mean years of eductaion

Source: Source: IFs v 7.61, initialising from UNESCO’s data for the Sustainable Development Goals.
(click on the graph for the full size image)

This is important, as mean years of education impact human capital, which in turn affects an economy’s productivity as more educated workers tend to be more productive economically. A fall in educational attainment means the COVID-19-related surge in dropout rates alone could reduce South Africa’s 2032 GDP by approximately US$2.6 billion.

That’s in addition to all the other economic blows COVID-19 has inflicted. The scenario also results in an additional 115 000 South Africans classified as extremely poor (using a threshold of living on less than US$5.50 in 2011 US dollars per day).

Government expects a third wave of the pandemic to hit this winter. Without decisive action, the negative impact on schooling, especially for the poor, can be expected only to compound. South Africa needs to get its children and teachers safely back into the classroom. Personal protective equipment must be provided in schools and teachers, as essential workers, should be vaccinated.

The Basic Education Department also needs better data on why students are absent. It may be because parents cannot afford transport, the financial or social strain of losing loved ones to COVID-19, or because they worry that they’ve fallen too far behind.

Without decisive action, the impact of a third wave will likely compound the damage to schooling

These underlying issues must be addressed. Programmes such as expanded school transport or tutoring could be more effective than reminders and demerits alone. Online learning also needs to be more accessible to the poor.

Interventions may be difficult to fund considering that basic education received a 5.3% decrease due to COVID-19-related budget cuts last year. We’ll see today if Finance Minister Tito Mboweni intends to give the sector much-needed relief.

Wesley Jonathan Timm, Researcher, African Futures and Innovation, ISS Pretoria

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