Coronavirus Op-Ed

Learning in the time of Covid-19: Equitable support during school closures desperately needed

By Motheo Brodie, Rone McFarlane & Nurina Ally 21 April 2020

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - MARCH 23: A general view of children being home schooled on March 23, 2020 in Johannesburg, South Africa. According to media, more parents are considering home-schooling amid the Covid-19 outbreak. (Photo: Gallo Images/Sharon Seretlo)

South African schools have been closed for over a month since Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga announced their abrupt but necessary closure on 18 March. As long as schools remain closed, we must interrogate government’s plans for learning during the lockdown.

Leaked Department of Basic Education documents suggest that the government is considering various options to reopen schools, including a phased approach between 6 May and mid-July. 

However, these plans have not been confirmed and it remains unclear when formal learning will be able to continue. As long as schools remain closed, we must interrogate government’s plans for learning during the lockdown, and how it is supporting the most vulnerable learners.

The disruption to schooling has worsened pre-existing inequalities in our education system and our society. While some schools have been able to provide learners with printed learning materials, online resources and virtual lessons, other learners and caregivers are without any resources or support.

Social inequalities are exacerbating education inequalities. Many learners lack data or access to devices to support online learning and access to electricity remains a problem. In some cases learners do not have a home environment conducive to learning and households are struggling to put food on the table.

It is against this background that education civil society organisations and social movements – SECTION27, Equal Education and the Equal Education Law Centre – have written to the DBE with a plea to focus its interventions on learners who are least likely to receive support from anywhere else.

The reality is that the vast majority of learners will have an extremely difficult time learning at home and cannot be expected to keep up with the formal curriculum during school closures. The focus must be on providing learners and caregivers with resources and support that enable meaningful learning opportunities and take into account what is possible until schools reopen.

The DBE has shown some consideration for these realities, with Motshekga publicly stating that learners will not be assessed on content that has not been taught in the classroom.

In the meantime, various resources have been made available, including the use of online platforms and radio and television lessons. While these measures are to the benefit of learners, they are certainly not perfect or sufficient.

In our joint letter, we have emphasised the need to support learners and caregivers with simple guidelines on how to best utilise the time at home, without creating pressure to cover the curriculum. Government guidelines should focus on work that can realistically be done at home and outline core skills that can be prioritised.

Caregivers are well placed to support learners with reading and storytelling. We welcome minister Motshekga’s emphasis on reading and encourage the DBE to do more to supply families with printed reading materials, especially in African languages. Families should also be supported in developing simple routines by scheduling time for storytelling, fun physical activities, sharing meals and discussing broader societal issues such as the effects of Covid-19 and the lockdown.

We have also highlighted the following key issues:

  • Disparities in access to internet and devices;
  • The need for access to printed materials in various languages;
  • Information related to broadcast schedules for both radio and television being uncoordinated and ad-hoc;
  • Lack of access to online resources;
  • The need to specifically support learners with disabilities; and
  • Recognising and supporting the relationships that enable learning.

Disparities in access to internet and devices

According to the 2018 General Household Survey, approximately 10.4% of South African households have access to the internet at home. That percentage drops to as low as 1.7% in rural areas. If you consider access to mobile data, these figures change to 65% and 45% respectively. But this does not necessarily equate to sufficient access for learning. Moreover, not all mobile devices support access to learning materials. In contrast, 82.2% of South African households own a television, with 73.4% of households in rural areas having one.

The DBE has already acknowledged these disparities and it is imperative that government interventions continue to do so.

Access to printed materials

In the context of limited or intermittent access to online learning materials, printed materials remain a critical resource for learners. Prior to schools closing, minister Motshekga asked teachers to send workbooks home with learners. However, in one of her press briefings, she indicated that she was unsure whether this happened at all schools.

With the extension of the lockdown, learners should have access to both workbooks and textbooks. In cases where learners could not take these materials home, arrangements should be made to get them to them. One solution could be to give learners or caregivers the opportunity to collect materials at their schools. Collection dates and times could be staggered to facilitate social distancing. Learners with disabilities must be prioritised and they should be given the necessary support and materials.

Television and radio content

Information related to broadcast schedules for both radio and television has been uncoordinated and ad hoc, which makes it difficult for learners and caregivers to plan ahead. Schedules should be located in a centralised place and be adequately publicised.

Some televised and radio lessons assume that all learners have their workbooks with them when this is not necessarily the case. Furthermore, there is no sign language interpretation during televised lessons.

Free to air radio stations and television channels should be prioritised and content should be made available in all languages.

Accessible online resources

While we have noted the severe limitations of online resources, where such resources are made available, the government should ensure that access is as far-reaching as possible.

The DBE’s main website where learners are often referred to download resources can be very slow – this is presumably because of the high user traffic. We have recommended that the DBE obtain adequate Information Technology (IT) services to cope with the increased online traffic to their site at this time.

There is no proper centralisation of online resources, which is horribly confusing. There are multiple DBE websites with resources. For example, the DBE has a main website, as well as a cloud site and a ‘Bhelelela’ portal. The DBE should select one centralised website for all resources. In the spirit of trying to make sure no learner gets left behind, SECTION27 has created a resource map to help learners and caregivers locate some of the resources provided by the department.

Our joint letter also notes that a number of resources on the DBE’s main website are quite large, which has implications for data costs. Furthermore, there is no uniformity in the zero-rating of websites by the different mobile network operators. In this regard, we have recommended that government ensure that resources are zero-rated across all networks and that content is data-lite. The content design should also be awake to the fact that the cellphones learners have access to are often not smartphones.

A need to recognise and support relationships that enable learning

Access to materials is only one aspect of learning. Other important aspects include whether learners are able to engage with the content and connect with teachers and peers. The DBE must encourage and support teachers to stay in contact with learners and caregivers during school closures. This could entail providing teachers with SIM cards with data and airtime, potentially through an agreement with cellular companies. Teachers also need support in navigating the online landscape and the challenges it poses to teaching.

We cannot predict what will happen over the coming weeks and months. In the meantime, while learning from home remains the only option, the government ought to be providing realistic and caring support to learners and caregivers, that creates meaningful learning opportunities. As conversations start on what the reopening of schools should look like, government must ensure that the needs of the most vulnerable learners remain at the centre of their recovery efforts. DM/MC

Motheo Brodie is a legal researcher in the Education rights programme at SECTION27. Roné McFarlane is the Co-Head of Research at Equal Education. Nurina Ally is the EE Law Centre Executive Director.

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