CORONAVIRUS AND EDUCATION
Covid-19 cements need for virtual learning, amid concerns it will widen digital divide
With South Africa in lockdown for 21 days, parents have been left with the uneasiness of not knowing when schools will reopen. While some have the capacity to move their children to virtual education, there are concerns many might be left behind.
As Coronavirus continues to spread across the globe, life, as we know it, has been greatly adjusted. As a result, the majority of the school-going population in the world are not attending school or university because of the rapid spread of the virus.
According to Unesco, over 160 countries have implemented nationwide closures that have impacted over 87% of the world’s student population.
Although a few institutions of higher education in the country have switched to remote learning, the basic education department is mum on whether they are considering a similar move.
But instead the department emphasised that once schools re-open, provincial departments would have coordinated a catch-up plan to make up for the days lost.
The Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga pronounced during a media briefing on Thursday 26 March that the reopening of schools will be determined by how South Africans respond to the lockdown.
“The next three weeks are crucial for the reopening of our schools. It depends on all of us to flatten the curve of Covid-19. People must please co-operate during the lockdown,” the minister said.
The recovery plan is calculated according to the number of days lost by learners for as long as schools remain closed. Depending on the calculations, the national government along with provincial departments is able to determine what recovery methods can be used. This includes extending the school calendar, adding extra tuition hours for learners and educators.
Overwhelmed by the uncertainty of school closures, for some parents, virtual learning is a desirable option.
Think Digital College CEO, Janessa Urquhart, told Daily Maverick that they received an increased number of requests from parents soon after Covid-19 was declared a National Disaster.
“We decided to open up Term 2 access for R500 for the whole term,” she said.
The virtual school normally charges R2500 for Grade R up to R14 000 for matric students.
“We also have a two-week trial, this allows parents to see whether it works for the child, and should there be a crisis in two weeks’ time, they can possibly continue learning,” said Urquhart.
Aside from the fact that virtual schools pose the risk of deepening the country’s inequalities, Urquhart said parents tend to stereotype home education out of the fear that it is not structured.
“What parents do not realise is that we can use technology in primary and secondary education to prepare students for life. This generation was born seeing the world through the lens of a cell phone. But, not every child has a device or access to WiFi, and that is the reality,” Urquhart said.
While virtual learning might be an option for some learners, an alarming concern is access for learners whose schools do not have the capacity and resources to go online.
Equal Education’s general secretary, Noncedo Madubedube cautions that online education is not the sole answer to ensuring that teaching and learning continue in a scenario where school closures are prolonged.
“The answer to this cannot be virtual. Us going ICT leaves out a huge demographic of our country and that disservices the idea of us having education in a democratic society,” she said.
Although the department acknowledged that as it stands, the early closure of schools exacerbated inequalities in the schooling system and the lockdown will intensify them, no probable solutions have been forthcoming to prepare for worst-case scenarios.
Education expert Mary Metcalfe echoes Madubedube’s concerns. “The lockdown is going to have a huge impact on the way we do many things in society,” she told Daily Maverick. “But my greatest concern is that an overemphasis on online responses to whether its education or the operation of businesses is going to exacerbate inequalities”.
Metcalfe warns that if there is not a massive investment in equitable access to online resources, the gap will widen.
During Thursday’s briefing, Motshekga did, however, outline a range of learning support systems that both parents and learners can utilise during the lockdown.
Vodacom’s e-school portal gives learners across all grades access to free learning material that is in line with SA’s school curriculum and is zero-rated.
The basic education department also published study material including textbooks, worksheets, revision booklets, and study guides on their website. In addition, the minister said there will be broadcast lessons both on radio and television for learners across all grades.
Motshekga said the broadcast schedule for lessons will be published on the department’s website, but did not say when.
Schools will remain closed for an unknown number of days, and for children whose sole food supply is the schools’ nutrition program, the lockdown will severely impact their nutriment.
According to the department, the National Schools Nutrition Programme feeds over 9-million school children, with most of them relying on the meals as their main source of nutrition.
Motshekga announced that it will be impossible for the department to continue with the nutrition programme under the current circumstances.
“We feed 9.6-million children every day. There is no way under the lockdown we can pretend we can do it. It is not going to happen. The social development department is looking at measures and they will speak for themselves on how they will assist communities,” she said.
Madubedube told Daily Maverick that while they understand the limitations of the department, they seem to have taken a lax approach to the problem.
“This is a global pandemic, it’s a crisis, most of our parents won’t be working during this period. Income will be severely cut. So it is the responsibility of the DBE to put forward first the needs of the school community,” she said. DM
Useful sites and links for learners
Vodacom e-school: https://www.vodacom.co.za/vodacom/services/vodacom-e-school
Department of Basic Education: https://www.education.gov.za
Olico Maths education: https://learn.olico.org
Gauteng department of education: https://education.gauteng.gov.za
Virtual schools in South Africa
Think Digital College: https://www.thinkdigitalcollege.co.za/
Virtual School: https://www.virtualschools.co.za/
Teneo School at Home: https://www.teneoschool.co.za/
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