CORONAVIRUS OP-ED

Schools cannot simply be either open or closed – we have to be flexible

By Nicky Roberts 25 May 2020

A classroom is prepared at Bryanston High School in Johannesburg on 25 May 2020. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sharon Seretlo)

Opening a particular school is not an on-off switch. We need to expect that and plan for when people in our school community will contract the virus. And when that happens, those adults and children need to be supported.

In the past week, I have been thinking a lot about trust: How it is formed, how it is maintained, how it is broken? Where and how is trust made visible? At what points, in which levels of society and between which institutions and the individuals that make up these structures can we strengthen trust?

The significant fear and anxiety of parents relating to sending their children back to school is understandable. We have been told to limit our individual freedoms for the sake of keeping ourselves and our community safe – with combating a global virus compared to waging a war – and now as case numbers rise, we are expected to send our children into the battlefield. 

The school debates have waged from “children are safer: they are less likely to contract the virus, they are not super transmitters (unlike flu), when they get it, it’s mild and they don’t die”, to “have you seen the 70 cases in France?, children are dying in New York, newborn babies have got the disease; whatever the statistics, my child will not become one”.

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It is therefore reassuring to hear from our president that: “No parent will be forced to send their child to school if they are worried about safety.”

I think we are only just coming to understand the complexity of the open/close schools’ choices. There are risks to opening schools, but there are simultaneously risks to keeping schools closed. Children need stimulation. Social interaction with peers and caring adults is important for child development. 

Children need nutrition. Many children need school as a safe haven away from home. Our problems deepen with lack of economic activity. Parents need to go back to work or busy themselves with securing a livelihood and cannot leave their children unattended. Educational inequalities widen with each day that schools remain closed: where a minority can continue formal learning while the majority cannot.

The national Department of Basic Education (DBE) has the prerogative to set the national tone and define the policy context for schools. They have – appropriately – consulted widely with national and provincial structures. They have prioritised health and occupational safety. They have put in place regulations and guidelines for when schools open, and the protocols to be followed under the Covid-19 context. They have agreed on a phased approach allowing senior students (Grades 7 and 12), back first to establish new norms and practices of physical distancing, increased sanitation and safety. They are trimming the curriculum and publishing a new school calendar.

But this is schooling at the national or macro level. It is a policy framework for nine provinces, and about 28,000 schools to implement. This is not a short-term issue where announcing a date for opening is sufficient. Our president made it clear that “until there is a vaccine available to all, the coronavirus will continue to spread in our population. This means that we must get used to living with the coronavirus for some time to come.” 

And that “the duration, scale and impact of the pandemic depends on our actions as a society and on our behaviour as individuals”. Somewhat ominously – but to some extent reassuringly – he said “it” is now in our hands.

As a precaution, all people who have been in contact with a person with Covid-19 are also affected. They will be quarantined. This may be at the school (each school must have a quarantine area for suspected cases), at home or in a quarantine facility. So there will be many instances when remote or home-based learning and teaching will be necessary.

And “it” relates to formal learning as well. We can no longer stay at home and wait to be told what to do by our government. We are getting our freedoms back. And with increased freedom comes increased responsibility. We now have more agency. We now also have more knowledge: how we act at the micro-level of the individual school, class and household, determines our risk of contracting or spreading Covid-19.

At the micro-level of a particular school, it is obvious that opening schooling is not an on-off switch. A school cannot simply be either open or closed. It is not just black or white. But as a school community, we need to expect and plan for a lot of grey. 

It is the efforts and behaviour of school management teams, school governing bodies, teachers, parents and workers which are now in focus. And all of these role players have a very personal and immediate need to keep the particular school environment safe. Both teachers and parents have increased responsibility.

Keeping formal learning happening either at home or in school requires a genuine partnership. Parents cannot simply wash their hands and expect all learning to happen at school. Teachers cannot simply wash their hands and expect no learning at home. By necessity, schools will be in a state of flux, and some agility in shifting between home and school-based learning will be essential.

There will be much grey. And this requires all adults who care for children to be supportive and communicative. Remote learning which takes place away from school will be necessary for a long time to come. Some children may need to come to school full time. Others may need to come to school for an assessment or weekly to collect and submit work. The “black or white” of schools being open or closed is a fallacy.

We are phasing in the opening of schools by prioritising older learners. While younger children wait to be able to return to school; some home-based learning will be critical.

While we are preparing for an “inevitable rise in Covid-19 cases”, the rate and extent of this rise depends on our behaviour. This means that we all have to do the simple things: wash our hands regularly, wear a face mask, keep at least a 1.5m distance from other people, avoid touching our faces with unwashed hands and clean surfaces we touch regularly. Maintain physical distance, but keep a social connection.

As parents, we will not be able to physically be on the school grounds, but we can help and show our solidarity. Those parents who are fortunate enough to be employed can help financially. We can donate soap and sanitiser for use in school and in homes. We can thank teachers and school managers for what they are doing. We can offer private transport for those who must use public transport. We can offer food parcels, clothes and support for those in our school community who are battling the economic face of this pandemic. 

For the majority who are feeling the economic hardship of this pandemic, the knowledge that there is a common school community beyond their immediate family may be helpful. The adults in our school community can help each other. We can reach out and ask for help, and keep the school informed of our circumstances.

As parents, teachers and workers in a school community, we each have to monitor our own family’s health and keep looking for and supporting people in our school community who contract Covid-19. There are different levels of risks in each community, but we should all plan that people in our school community will contract the virus. And when that happens, those adults and children need to be supported, albeit isolated from others to prevent further spread. 

As a precaution, all people who have been in contact with a person with Covid-19 are also affected. They will be quarantined. This may be at the school (each school must have a quarantine area for suspected cases), at home or in a quarantine facility. So there will be many instances when remote or home-based learning and teaching will be necessary.

If your child has a temperature or flu-like symptoms, you should notify your school. Your child must stay at home and if well enough, they should learn from home.

If your child has an underlying medical condition which puts them at greater risk, you should notify your school. They may need to limit contact at school (by just collecting notes or books or tests), and mostly learn from home.

If a case of Covid-19 (an adult or child), is found in a school, phase or grade, those who have been in contact with that person should self-isolate. This means at times that parts or all of the school should stay at home and learn from home.

Your child may ordinarily be taught by a teacher who has a comorbidity; or who is over 60 years of age. Their teacher may not come to school. This means that contact with this teacher may be less frequent and remote.

If your family is facing financial distress, or you need nutritional support, you should notify your school. Teachers are being trained on available government services, and have reliable information about food parcels, counselling and other social services. For those with internet access, these are all listed on www.education.gov.za

All of this requires communication between the adults in the school and the adults at home. We can all unite around a common priority: “The health and wellbeing of learners, students, educators and workers in our school.” Our secondary priority, which binds us all together in the school is “the growth and development of our children… (so) that an entire generation of learners should not be permanently disadvantaged by this pandemic”.

Now more than ever we need to extend our circles of trust and care for each other. As we widen our interactions to include our school community, we are not helpless pawns. We are resourceful and resilient adults who can and must work together.

We should guard against creating or entrenching divisions in our school communities. Parents should not be fearful of keeping their child at home. A parent should not fear “losing their place” in a school. A parent’s act of keeping a child at home may be in the best interests of the school community: the parent is keeping a sick child from infecting others; and reducing the numbers of children in a class. 

By keeping communication channels open, a school leadership team will know the situation of a particular home. The parent/guardian and teacher can work together in the best interests of the child’s health, safety and learning. But at the same time, if a parent chooses to keep their child at home, then they must take some responsibility for their child’s learning at home.

The onus lies with the school management team to set up and encourage open communication channels between teachers and the parents of children in their class. This requires school infrastructure such as electricity, WiFi, telephones and data. It may require using the teachers who cannot come to school to assist with an ongoing communication and remote learning support. 

Teachers should expect that not all the children will be at school, and that there will be periods of whole class disruption to learning. For this to be successful, parents need to work with the teachers and school leaders to collect and submit formal schoolwork.

Now is not the time to draw enemy lines between groups in our school community: minister versus citizens; national versus province; parents versus teachers; managers versus workers. Under Level 4 lockdown, we have been focused on immediate family and (for those of us employed) with our workplaces. 

Now more than ever we need to extend our circles of trust and care for each other. As we widen our interactions to include our school community, we are not helpless pawns. We are resourceful and resilient adults who can and must work together.

This is not easy. And different schooling contexts require different solutions. In my next article, I will share emerging lessons about remote learning for different age groups in the rural Eastern Cape. DM

Nicky Roberts is an Associate Professor in mathematics education in the Centre for Education Practice Research (CEPR), University of Johannesburg, Soweto campus. She has a PhD in mathematics education (Wits), and a masters in International perspectives in mathematics education (Cambridge). She writes in her personal capacity.

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