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Education in a time of school closures


President Ramaphosa announced on 15 March that schools would close within days for just over three weeks, as opposed to the originally planned one week of school holidays. This is in line with steps taken across the world to reduce the spread of the new coronavirus. This is a sudden change of plan, and closures may be extended. What should South Africans look out for? What can they do to limit the adverse effects of this disruption on education?


The pace of learning should be kept up, as far as possible. What is not widely known is that reliable data point to steady quality improvements in learning over the last two decades. We cannot lose this momentum. UNESCO has responded to the crisis by providing advice on how to transition rapidly to distance learning, using modern technologies. This is relevant for those in South Africa who have the resources but for many, this is not the case. For instance, among Grade 9 learners only 40% say they have access to a computer, or tablet, plus the internet at home, though the figure rises to 52% if one considers a mobile phone plus internet (statistics calculated from the 2015 TIMSS data).


The national workbooks, which UNESCO has acknowledged as an example of good practice for a schooling system, may prove particularly useful now. These full-colour books, which belong to learners, can guide learning in the home. Not only would children have the current year’s books, many households would have books from previous years in the home. Over 150 million workbooks have been given to learners since the programme began in 2011. The fact that 44% of primary school learners are in households which also have at least one secondary learner, provides a sense of the scope for older siblings to support younger household members with their schoolwork (2018 General Household Survey data).


Of all of South Africa’s midday meals eaten on a weekday during term time, one in six are meals served by schools. The disruption in this service as a result of school closures, in a context where the National Development Plan talks about a fifth of South Africa’s children experiencing stunting due to poor nutrition, is very concerning. Perhaps the most critical question in relation to school closures is how food, which has already been budgeted for, can be distributed to targeted children, without compromising efforts to contain the virus.


Children of school-going age seem very unlikely to suffer serious Covid-19 symptoms, though there is still uncertainty around the statistics. However, if the spread of the virus is not duly controlled, high levels of illness among those who care for children could be the result. General Household Survey indicate that 6% of primary school learners have parents or caregivers who are all aged 50 or above. These households would be more vulnerable, given which age groups experience the worst Covid-19 symptoms.


School closures probably mean the country’s 440,000 or so teachers also stay at home. Apart from attempting to stay in touch with learners, especially where the available technologies allow for this, teachers might use this time to catch up on their own professional development. Spending 80 hours a year on this is considered an ideal in the profession, yet on average teachers spend just 40 hours a year. Professional learning communities (PLCs), relatively informal groups of teachers, have begun to emerge in South Africa in recent years, in line with a worldwide trend. According to the Department of Basic Education’s 2017 School Monitoring Survey, 46% of schools have PLCs. A few years before that there were hardly any. Now could be the time for teachers to consolidate such groups. There is now clear advice on how to proceed with this kind of work in the South African context.


In short, unexpected school closures, and the Covid-19 epidemic in general, create new challenges within a schooling sector which is already stretched. Regular routines have been disrupted and this can give rise to insecurity. It is important to face the challenges in an informed manner, and to bring about new, emergency routines as quickly as possible.