The Department of Basic Education has come out to defend a "digital classroom" initiative during the lockdown devised by a non-profit, after the idea drew criticism from the teaching fraternity, especially for its use of celebrities to teach a reading component.
The department said the idea, devised by NPO Africa Teen Geeks, was not meant to undermine the teaching profession.
The department was responding to it being slammed for using celebrities as "teachers" instead of professional teachers. This saw #CelebritiesAreNotTeachers trending on Twitter on Monday.
According to the department, Africa Teen Geeks approached it with the idea of an intervention to support pupils during the lockdown as the country fights the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Basic Education spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga said the sessions, however, were not a formal school but an "out-school project" that was put in place as a temporary activity for pupils to continue schoolwork while they were at home.
He said it is an optional activity with no subscription required.
There are two components of the project - the STEM Lockdown Digital School and the Lockdown Book Reading club, which are running concurrently.
The initiative is funded by the Sasol Foundation.
Mhlanga said 56 educators were involved in the project, with 54 of them qualified and registered with the South African Council for Educators (SACE), as well as two student teachers.
The department said the STEM digital school is for pupils from Grade R to 12, while the book reading club is for those from Grade R to Grade 3.
The 54 fully-qualified teachers, who joined after responding to an advert to recruit teachers, are paid between R10 000 and R15 000, depending on when they joined.
Meanwhile, the book reading club has ambassadors - like Metro FM DJ Somizi Mhlongo-Motaung, DJ Sbu Leope, Pearl Modiadie, Khaya Mthethwa and Bonginkosi Dlamini, known as Zola 7 - who volunteered their time.
Executive Director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga and Basic Education Deputy Minister Reginah Mhaule are also part of the reading club.
But the department stressed that these ambassadors do not do "formal teaching", rather they promote the importance of reading.
According to the department, Teen Geeks is an organisation that does work in the basic education sector and had approached it seeking support.
The department said there was no tender involved and no financial implication for the department. It said there was only advocacy support because the project was fully aligned with the work of the department, especially during the lockdown.
"There was no intention to undermine the teaching profession in anyway. The 56 teachers involved in the actual learner support programme are qualified or in the process of obtaining their teaching qualification. The use of ambassadors to promote reading has been in place since the Read to Lead campaign was launched in 2015.
"The practice of using familiar personalities to drive a campaign is an age-old strategy used to promote worthy causes such as the reading revolution," the department said.
Mhlanga said the department had also made online resources available that are user-friendly and appreciated the involvement of partners in minimising the impact of Covid-19 on basic education.