The basic education department has issued a circular to all heads of department (HODs), directors, school governing bodies (SGBs) and teacher unions outlining guidelines on how schools should react to the coronavirus.
This is the first sign that the government is truly fearful of an outbreak among schools, after it previously called for calm and said there was no reason to shut down schools and universities, or warn against international travel.
The circular was released by the department on Thursday and comes in the wake of the health ministry confirming the number of patients who have tested positive for the coronavirus.
The number of positive cases in South Africa had risen to 17 on Thursday, with cases identified in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng, Mpumalanga and the Free State.
The circular advised schools to prepare for a possible temporary dismissal of school activity as a strategy to stop or slow the further spread of the coronavirus in communities.
Schools were told to work in close collaboration with health officials in order to make an informed decision on the suspension of activities.
The department, however, also outlines that schools are not expected to make decisions about dismissing or cancelling events on their own.
“Schools can seek specific guidance from health officials to determine if, when, and for how long to take these steps.
“Large event cancellations or school dismissals may be recommended for 14 days, or possibly longer if advised by local health officials. The nature of these actions… may change as the local situation evolves,” the communiqué reads.
If there is a need for a school to be dismissed, the department advises that it consider temporarily cancelling or postponing any extracurricular activities and discourage pupils from social gatherings.
It suggests that a school can make plans to ensure that learning and teaching continues by, among others, implementing e-learning plans, including digital and distance learning options.
The department also tasked school administrators stay abreast of the developments regarding the virus, and to ensure school bodies are informed about it.
It cautions schools to monitor and plan for absenteeism and to establish procedures for pupils who are sick at school – and to encourage pupils and staff to remain at home when they are sick.