Easing the impact of Covid-19 on our education system

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Zaheera Soomar. (Image: Supplied)
Zaheera Soomar. (Image: Supplied)

By Zaheera Soomar

The Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on education in South Africa has been enormous. Millions of children have lost up to half their scheduled school days for 2020 as government closed schools to help prevent the spread of the disease.

However, the full impacts of the pandemic, as well as the longer-term repercussions on education, will only be understood in the coming months and years. That is when it will become clear whether students received enough of the foundation, support and learning in this year.

According to Unesco, more than 1.5 billion learners in 165 countries were affected by Covid-19 school closures. “Never before have we witnessed educational disruption on such a scale,” said Unesco director general Audrey Azoulay.

What became increasingly clear as the lockdown wore on was that school closures only entrenched existing inequalities in our education system. The children who were already most at risk of being excluded from a quality education, and the benefits of an education, were the most affected: the kids without access to basic education needs, books, self-learning materials, devices, basic digital literacy and connectivity struggled to take part in online and remote teaching and learning.

Ultimately, the main impact of the pandemic, and its associated school closures, was a lack of teaching and learning time for students. This affected some grades worse than others.

Grade 12 students, in their critical final year of schooling, were significantly impacted. While they returned to school first, there is little doubt that their results will be affected, especially for the quintile 1-3 rural schools. While timelines to keep matric students on track by ensuring examinations take place by end of year, the longer-term impacts might impact their results and post-secondary school options.

While it will be interesting to see if considerations and support are adjusted for post-secondary opportunities, given the circumstances, there is no doubt that matric pupils who are not adequately prepared to enter institutions of higher learning will likely see their chances of dropping out of university increase.

Grade 1-3 learners were another cohort who bore the major brunt. These are fundamental years for developing numeracy and literacy skills, and there is very little content they can afford to miss. At this stage, they simply have to acquire all the skills both academic and social – or the effects could be life-long.

For children of this age, it is also difficult to work alone. Remote and distance learning is far harder for young children. They need support from an adult and, often, adults were not able or available to provide that support. There is also great concern around the impact of the pandemic on 3-5 year olds, as early childhood development (ECD) has stayed largely closed this year.

Although most school closures have been lifted, the impacts on our children remain. They are either not able to attend school every day, or attend in various shift and platooning systems, leaving teachers and learners alike having to play catch-up.

To help students make up for lost time, Anglo American’s education programme has tried to minimise this impact on students by providing remote support for Grade 12 Maths and Science learners at its 31 participating  high schools since April, operating from 07h00 to 23h00 every day of the week, with tutors and content specialists on hand. Content, questions, model answers, quizzes and responses to individual questions were provided on WhatsApp groups, with data provided to learners to overcome access issues.

As the lockdown has lifted, this support has shifted to include physical sessions in the afternoons and on Saturdays. In some schools where we have found that learners still lack basics, we have introduced Sunday classes, and have conducted mock exams and continuous assessment before the final examinations. 

It’s important that our efforts do not just focus on learners, though. Educator development is a cornerstone of uplifting our country’s education system. Teachers across the country have had to adapt to a new way of teaching, mostly through rotation and platooning, and our service providers have been providing ongoing training, support and resources to principals, teachers and school management teams alike to help them through this time.

As we enter the final stretch of this truncated school year, the country’s educational system is still severely constrained. Ideally, what’s required are additional teachers and classrooms, so smaller classes can be taught to meet social distancing requirements while allowing children to attend school every day. This is not feasible. But there are other possibilities that the education system could explore, such as consistent platooning – having school in the afternoon for key grades, e.g. Grades 1-3, and provide additional tutors to help deliver enough teaching.

Next year, we will all need to make extra effort – the Department of Education and all of us who play a role in this most critical developmental building block of our country – to ‘play catch-up’ and get many grades back on track with the work they will invariably have missed. We will need to assess what was lost along the way this year and see if – and how - it can be made up in 2021. This will mean supporting teachers with adjusted curriculums, and possibly providing more direct support to learners. 

Most of all, though, we must find a way to close the education gap in our country. It is vital that we find a way to get as many children as possible back into school next year and give them the basic resources they need to get a decent education. If we miss this opportunity, the true impact will last for generations – and that is something we cannot afford.

Soomar is the lead for education programmes at Anglo American.

This post and content is sponsored, written and provided by Anglo American.

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