TWO YEARS OF COVID: Education expert shares the highs and lows of learning through lockdown

File picture: Pexels

File picture: Pexels

Published Mar 31, 2022


by Professor Vimolan Mudaly

Covid-19’s sudden onset in 2020 in South Africa, perhaps in the world, revealed how tenuous our policies and structures related to education are. Education departments scurried around looking for ways to mitigate the loss of learning that resulted from partial and complete school closures.

Despite our best efforts, Covid-19 laid bare the realities of past inequalities and inequities. Children from poor backgrounds lost more. The neoliberal idea of homeschooling was foisted upon parents, many of whom lacked educational capital themselves.

Before I claim that under the circumstances, we faired well, let me note the issues that Covid-19 foregrounded as our failures. The digital infrastructure provisions for online learning were, in some instances, non-existent. Those families that did have internet access were able to continue with a fair amount of ease.

Learners needed laptops, iPads, smartphones or at least a PC. Most learners shared their parent’s smartphone between the other children in the household. This did not work well at all and remote learning failed for vulnerable children from low-income families.

The idea that parents could assume the role of homeschool teacher, without any training, showed a great absence of understanding about the masses and their educational prowess. This strategy did not work and the pedagogical implications of those who tried may be more deleterious in the longer term than can be expected.

The communication between the Department of Basic Education, schools and parents was not optimal either. The uncertainty around school closure and reopening dates created confusion. Further, with closures came the possibility that children would not return to schools.

It is currently estimated that since March 2020, more than 1 million children have failed to return to school. This is a significant number and we can only hope that much effort will be made to recall these learners.

School infrastructure has been the greatest ignominy that education faces. Who would believe that in the 21st century, during the 4th Industrial Revolution, some of our schools still exist without water and sanitation? Most schools have no computers for online tuition and buildings are generally dilapidated.

But, under the damning circumstances, South African education showed great resolve to make the best of things under the prevailing circumstances. The miasma of disease and death influenced the closing and opening of schools throughout the world, but there were periods that our schools were partially opened, while schools in other parts of the world remained tightly shut.

Of course, there was debate around reopening schools. There was fear (this was acceptable) and there was uncertainty. But schools had to reopen. We know that children were rarely severely affected by the virus. Statistics show that. More importantly though, was the fact that young children who stayed at home experienced more dreadful consequences.

First was the school nutrition programme. For many, the meal provided at school was the only proper meal they received daily. Closed schools ensured that these children went without any proper meals for prolonged periods. Second, the girls had to remain home and became the target of other males in the home or neighbourhood.

Parents had to seek employment and children were left alone (even 4-year-olds), making them easy prey for predators.

We have to acknowledge that some schools transitioned very quickly into an alternative mode of teaching and learning, whether it was online or distance learning. Some teachers were able to create videos and place them on YouTube for learners to access.

As I have indicated earlier, this was not easily available to all. The phased return of learners to school and rotation classes, during periods of partial reopening, served its purpose of ensuring that learners were able to receive some form of tuition.

Although both systems were not ideal it still allowed learners to meet their teachers and it allowed the spirit of schooling to flourish under difficult circumstances.

Curriculum trimming was essential and teams of people worked, it seems, to trim the bloated curriculum to ensure the essential aspects of each subject or discipline were taught and that learners maintained a pedagogical link between different but important concepts.

Finally, I must applaud the interest the education ministry showed in the crisis that faced the nation. The minister, deputy minister and other high-ranking officials visited random schools to see that the schools, when opened, were abiding by the protocols set out and if assistance was required, attempts were made to provide what was necessary.

So, what did we learn from the pandemic? Certainly, we find that ICT and infrastructure have to be upgraded in most public schools. Those schools with poor or no water and sanitation must be prioritised for infrastructural improvements. All schools must be fully equipped with the necessary ICT that would ensure future online teaching when such disasters strike again.

With the onset of the virus came desperate attempts to educate the masses about hygiene and the washing of hands. This is a rather awkward position that we find ourselves in. Hygiene should be practised involuntarily and schools and family should have inculcated these values from birth and through the early years of schooling. The idea that this had to be taught during the pandemic was unacceptable.

Teacher development must be ongoing so that skills related to technology can become part of the tools that teachers use at schools. Some teachers discovered the internet and Zoom for the first time during the pandemic.

Finally, we have to accept that schools should only close under extreme conditions. The danger that children are exposed to, especially girls, is far greater that the risks that the virus poses. The closure of schools also denies some children their daily meals. Schools often provide adequate physical, psychological and social comfort for children that are already experiencing daily trauma (illness and death of loved ones).

Professor Vimolan Mudaly is the deputy academic leader at UKZN's College of Humanities School of Education.