“Considering schools in rural areas, how will the Minister [Motshekga] ensure that learners with no internet connection are not left behind?” asked Ntombi, a Grade 12 learner and member of Equal Education (what we call an Equaliser), from Nquthu in northern KwaZulu-Natal.
“Most learners in rural areas do not have access to the internet and some cannot study on their own. Has the Minister [Motshekga] thought about how this will be addressed? Especially for learners in Grade 12?” asked Kgaugelo, an Equaliser from Ga-Mashashane in Limpopo.
When Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga held a media briefing a few days ago to present her Covid-19-related intervention plans to the country, these were the concerns that Equalisers wanted her to respond to.
Bold, imaginative and empathetic leadership is being asked of Motshekga, to lessen the impact of school closures on learners and school staff, from impoverished and rural communities in particular. Instead, she seemed not to have fully grasped how grave the circumstances are and did not inspire confidence that she was doing everything possible to respond accordingly.
No intervention is foolproof, and alleviating the devastating new set of burdens on caregivers and children is a complex task – but Motshekga and the Council of Education Ministers (CEM), have not convincingly demonstrated that they have rigorously explored all the options.
The closure of schools – necessary to reduce the spread of Covid-19 – will have dire consequences. Not only is teaching and learning being severely disrupted, but a significant number of learners are going to go hungry. Outside of school, some children also do not have the safety, stability and structure to protect and love them during this difficult time. As it becomes increasingly likely that schools may be closed for longer than anticipated, we need education leadership that rises to the occasion.
Essentially, Motshekga’s linear plans to support learners are to provide learning resources (lessons, specific subject content and readers), online and via television and radio, and providing some (unspecified) assistance to the Department of Social Development in the delivery of food parcels.
On a normal school day, about 300-million learners – or half of the world’s school-going children in low- and middle-income countries – rely on school meals to meet essential daily nutritional needs. Knowing how critical feeding schemes are, countries have leapt to continue providing food to learners.
In California, schools have established “pick-up-and-go” points for bulk meals to be collected. The Autonomous Community of Catalonia in Spain has issued redeemable credit cards for any commercial food establishment.
In contrast, for the 9-million learners in South Africa who receive a meal at school, there is confusion around what interventions will be put in place and who will take responsibility for them.
Equal Education is urging the national government and the national Solidarity Fund to either, in the short term, implement the mass roll-out of food packages to distribution points (with strict implementation of physical distancing and hygiene protocols), or to increase the financial allocation for the Child Support Grant.
The resources and adjustments our families need to make during this lockdown vary and are urgent. Yes, learners are members of communities supported by the Department of Social Development, but they are also constituents of the national and provincial education departments – hear us now!
Online and broadcast resources
For the many learners without data or devices to access online learning resources, who are also currently unable to make use of public libraries, Motshekga’s media briefing provided few answers.
The DBE seems to be prioritising online content, with Motshekga insisting that there will be no attempt to deliver printed materials to communities. In a country with such unequal access to the internet, this is shameful. In Portugal, for instance, the government suggested a partnership with the Post Office to deliver printed materials.
There are important efforts at utilising television and radio broadcasts for learning. For instance, an impressive schedule has been published for classes on a dedicated Open View channel (channel 122). At this point, classes on the channel seem to be focused on grades 10 to 12 and it is not yet clear where plans are for a similar SABC channel that would be more accessible. Comprehensive plans for radio lessons beyond KwaZulu-Natal have also not been clearly communicated. What happens to the foundation phase learners where our interventions are most needed.
Even where broadcast mediums are utilised, printed material can be a helpful supplement for learners learning from home.
While there are justified concerns about how matrics will be supported, it is also essential to ensure that foundation phase learners are provided for. Catering for learners in the early grades might entail providing learners with activity books or other age-appropriate learning resources.
It is critical that special needs learners are not left behind during this period. It is important that both audio and visual material, and broadcast mediums are utilised and that online and television broadcasts are also taught in South African sign language.
Extended school closures
Motshekga has insisted that the 2020 school year will not be lost, but how can she be so certain? Does her insistence mean that her department is not starting to think about rolling out longer-term interventions and grappling with what a lost school year would mean for the entire system?
These are unprecedented times and there is sympathy for the enormous task the government is confronted with. But, that we must address some of the socio-economic inequalities exacerbated by the lockdown that perpetuate the huge inequalities in our education system, there is no question. MC
Noncedo Madubedube is the General Secretary of Equal Education.