Education must be the most divested sector of society in South Africa after economy during the Covid-19 pandemic. Majority of people in the schooling sector are children and these happen to be among the most vulnerable in our society in terms of getting infected and/or feeling the impact of the pandemic. Rightly so, when the National Institute for Communicable Diseases confirmed a suspected case of Covid19 as positive[1] and more and more positive cases followed, the Basic Education Minister, Angie Motshekga announced the closure of schools [2] to protect children from getting infected.

Unlike any other normal times when both children and parents are excited about the reopening of schools, where children look forward to going back to school to see their friends and meet new people, reopening of schools  amid the Coronavirus pandemic caused anxiety and fear for both parents and children. The public outcry and court cases generated a huge media interest.

Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) analysed how media reported on the matter. The articles analysed were collected after a media monitoring exercise that was looking at stories about children and schools reopening from online media.  A total of 33 articles were submitted for analysis in line with MMA’s Make Abuse Disappear Online Accountability Tool (MADOAT) criteria.[3] While all 33 articles were monitored, only articles that stood out in terms of journalism practices on reporting on children are included in this analysis.

As can be expected during this pandemic, MMA’s finding is that there was a shift of who and what dominated the coverage of this back to school.  A trend observed is that previously, back to school coverage has been dominated by crying/sad faces and happy/smiling faces of new and returning learners,[4] school admission nightmares and infrastructure challenges, among others.  Unlike in previous back to school periods,  this time  the coverage had diverse sources, from parents, pupils, union representatives, teachers etc to doctors/experts, government representatives etc. A topic that wouldn’t normally find its way in such coverage but did in this one is that of Personal Protective Equipment.

A GroundUp article published on the day many schools were opening reported about the “unpreparedness” of many schools. The story titled, “Many learners sent home from “unprepared” schools, while others return” (08/06/2020) is well reported in that the journalists behind it visited schools in Louis Trichardt in Limpopo, Philippi East in Cape Town, Uitenhage and Mthatha in the Eastern Cape, Bethelsdorp and Motherwell in Port Elizabeth and Sweetwaters in Pietermaritzburg. While it is commendable that a learner is quoted in the article, the fact that from the many schools reported, only one pupil is accessed for his views cannot be ignored. GroundUp should have given more learners an opportunity to air their views from the different provinces and backgrounds to ensure a diversified voice.    

Another article which missed an opportunity to include views of children was published by Daily Sun. The article, School cannot maintain social distancing! (12/06/2020) includes a picture of learners in a classroom with the caption that talks about there not being social distancing at the school. While the school principal and a Kwa-Zulu Natal education official are given an opportunity to comment, nothing is heard from the children.

While it was common for many articles to be dominated by parents, educators and government officials as sources, some media did very well in ensuring the views of children were heard. This article by Parent24, Local matric students share their experience of returning to school in a pandemic (15/06/2020), only had learners as sources. The story highlights the experiences of matric pupils from different schools. One learner, a Mandisa Banda, 17, is quoted saying, “I am terrified. My grandfather lives with us, so I have to be extra cautious when going to school. I can’t afford to infect him. I also have to distance myself from him and the rest of my family.” The article also has a video embedded in the article of other children expressing their views and sharing their feelings about the pandemic.

Another media that did well to access children is DispatchLive in an article headlined, Superheroes welcome pupils back to Durban school (8/06/2020). The article is about the return of learners to a number of schools around Durban. The story is accompanied by pictures of both children and teachers. In one picture, teachers are dressed as superheroes to welcome learners. Learners from both secondary and primary schools are interviewed in this article. A learner from Queensburgh Primary School, 12-year-old Lwazi Seme, is quoted saying, “My dad told me not to share things and to always have my mask on. He said I must remember that I am a prefect and that I must teach others to do the right thing.”  

By interviewing these children, the journalists have given them power to express their views on an issue facing and affecting them during this difficult time. This is important because not only does it empower the children, it lets them participate in something of national importance. According to MMA’s Editorial Guidelines and Principles for Reporting on Children in the Media,[5] “Children have a right to have their views heard on matters that affect them, so [media should] try and include them.”

A topic that dominated much of this coverage was lack of infrastructure and some media took advantage of the opportunity to show how infrastructure was lacking in different schools. This inadequacy in infrastructure ranged from lack of classrooms to water and sanitation challenges. One example of an article reporting this was published by The Star Early Edition and headlined, Reopening of schools was without a plan (19/06/2020). The article highlights a court action launched by civil society to challenge school reopening as some of the schools were deemed to be not ready to receive learners.

Other articles focussed on school supplies in the form of temperature scanners, sanitisers and facemasks with questions of their timely delivery or otherwise being raised. One article that highlighted this issue was published by Sowetan and is titled, “Pupils sent back home as schools reopen (09/06/2020). The article reports that pupils from Orange farm in Gauteng were sent home because the school did not have temperature scanners to scan both teachers and learners before they entered the school premises.

South Africa has an estimated 7.5% people living with disabilities.[6] Among this group of people living with disabilities are school going children who are equally if not more affected by Covid-19.  In line with the general dearth of coverage of people with disabilities, out of the 33 articles monitored and analysed, not even a single one reported or focused on pupils with disabilities. Not reporting on children with disabilities perpetuates the stereotype that they are not important enough to make the news, a discrimination that should not be done by the media.

In line with South African media trends, Gauteng, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal continue to receive the most coverage with a lot of stories coming from these provinces.[7] Almost all the stories where children were interviewed originated from these three provinces. This is disheartening as pupils from other provinces are neglected and issues affecting pupils are left unreported. In the few stories coming from under-reported provinces, children were not interviewed.

Overall, the coverage was good with lots of diversity in terms of sources and issues raised that needed to be addressed before children could go back to school. Some of the media outlets made the children involved in the stories the central focus, something that is rarely done in general coverage of children. The media also used this opportunity to highlight some of the old problems around infrastructure challenges for many schools.

However, the media missed an opportunity to give pupils a voice in the majority of the stories that were monitored and analysed. Media could have done much better in adding different perspectives by including voices of pupils in many of the articles. Apart from lacking adequate voices, articles lacked critical information about Covid-19 in terms of helpful tips on how pupils can help change behaviours in school environments etc.

Another unfortunate issue observed was the lack of interest in pupils with disabilities, a pity given that a special attention needed to be given to this group because of other health challenges some of them already face.

As more learners in other grades return to school, MMA will continue to monitor and analyse coverage of this.

By Ntsako Manganyi