CORONAVIRUS OP-ED

Back to school, Part 1: No dress-up for ‘Treasure Island’ this year

By Kimon Phitidis 29 May 2020

Many teachers will be preparing as best they can for the unknowns that face them as schools reopen. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sydney Seshibedi)

These are anxious times for teachers, parents and pupils as schools gear up to resume classes as the Covid-19 lockdown eases. There are many imponderables and unknowns. But guidance is at hand.

Here is a useful guide for parents and caregivers:  Supporting learners at home

Schools are scheduled to open on 1 June for Grade 7 and 12 with a phased re-opening for the other grades. This week school teams were scheduled to return to schools to plan. Many teachers will be preparing as best they can for the unknowns that face them.

Tracey Naidoo, lead Grade 6 social sciences and maths teacher at Brenthurst Primary in Brakpan, Gauteng, is in two minds about going back to school.

“I’m wearing two caps. The teacher in me thinks, okay, children need routine, structure, discipline and the rules schools provide for them. For many children, school is their safe place, their happy place. On the other hand, as a mother, I was shocked the first time it was mentioned that kids need to go back to school. As a parent, I thought I would rather my child stayed at home where he is safe.” 

As a matter of course, Brenthurst prepares booklets of work for each term for each subject. Teachers have sent the booklets to parents through WhatsApp groups along with schedules of work and supporting memos. Access to data and gadgets is a problem and she estimates 70% of the learners are doing the work. Next week, when many parents return to work, this is likely to drop as many children will no longer have access to a phone during the day. Tracey believes in getting the job done, despite the circumstances. She’s done her best. She is also driven by her belief in karma. “Even if I don’t reap what I sow, my children will reap it. I do my job to the best of my ability,” she told me when I first met her in 2018.

Ameera Khan, English home language teacher at Promosa Primary on the outskirts of Potchefstroom, North West, is similarly conflicted. “I feel like we need to go back. How long are we going to carry on like this?” Ameera aspires to be that teacher who children look forward to coming to school for. She sees herself as an anchor, grounding children in love and trust. But she is anxious about schools reopening. “When the infection rate was at 61 cases we had this harsh lockdown. Now we are at over 20,000 and we are going back to school.”

Teachers are hoping for clarity to emerge through the confusion this week. Provincial WhatsApp groups have been flooded with conflicting messages from the Department of Basic Education, teacher unions and other stakeholders.

She thinks she will send her own son back to school. His school is smaller, and the Covid-19 protocols will be easier to manage. Like many South African schools, Promosa Primary is overcrowded and under-resourced. Ideally, she would have sent children home for lockdown with textbooks and work to do, but she has about 80 English textbooks of which 60 are in good condition – to share between the 140 learners in her Grade 7 classes. 

The school has not sent work home electronically during lockdown. It caters to families from the nearby township of Ikageng and the growing informal settlement of Marikana. “You can’t reprimand a child from that community too harshly for not doing her homework,” Ameera told me when I first met her last year. “Children go home to shacks without electricity, and when it rains their school books get wet.” Access to devices, data and adults who would be available to support home schooling is in short supply.

Pertunia Luthuli is a maths teacher at Mcopheleli Primary, a school that clings to a hillside in the Valley of a Thousand Hills in KwaDebeka, KwaZulu-Natal. “I want to go back to school. The work I am doing home schooling my daughter is too much,” she complains. “It is better if her teachers are teaching her and I will take care of my own learners. But I’m scared. We have been hearing about infections in the (nearby) nursing home, they have had an outbreak. We are now going back to school, but we have too many in a class. We have been hearing different opinions and different information from different sources. It’s not easy.”

The school has not sent work home, but Pertunia has been working with her Grade 7s digitally through Numeric, an NPO that runs a maths programme at the school. Most of them are doing the work sent through the WhatsApp groups, but many parents don’t have the data to support this. Pertunia has been running an evening Adult Basic Education and Training school in the evenings for several years for unemployed adults and for those working towards rewriting matric. She has stopped trying to run it electronically, as those enrolled don’t have the data to continue.  

Teachers are hoping for clarity to emerge through the confusion this week. Provincial WhatsApp groups have been flooded with conflicting messages from the Department of Basic Education, teacher unions and other stakeholders. They await to hear news about school readiness and about how Covid-19 protocols will be introduced and managed given shortages of space and teachers at each of these schools and uncertainties about cleaning and the delivery of PPEs.

The Department of Basic Education has published a revised calendar to make up for lost time, and has advised that the curriculum may be trimmed, although revised curricula have not yet been published.

“If we just have to phase in our Grade 7s it will be an absolute nightmare,” says Ameera. “This year we are up to 47 in a class and we will have to split them into groups of 15 for social distancing. That will take up all the Grade 5 and 6 classrooms. When the other grades come back I’m not sure how we are going to manage it.” The school has insufficient bathrooms and toilets for so many learners, and this will bring another layer of complexity to managing the protocols.  

Tracey speaks of the importance of educating children about Covid-19, the dos and the don’ts, the safety protocols and so on. “They are placing a lot of pressure on SMT (school management teams),” she says. “They are saying we need to come up with a concrete plan. It’s a bit scary having all these decisions to make and people’s lives in your hands. But the minute those kids walk in, teacher mode will kick in for us.”  

Pertunia is most concerned about the children in her area who for two months have been without the social support that the school provides, and she is wanting to get back to school for them. She is the coordinator of the school committee that supports children in need or facing difficulties. It facilitates medical care where needed and works with social workers to resolve cases of sexual abuse. She believes it is God’s will that she is a teacher and that she helps those that need love and don’t have warmth in their families. This is what motivates her as a teacher.

The Department of Basic Education has published a revised calendar to make up for lost time, and has advised that the curriculum may be trimmed, although revised curricula have not yet been published.

“In term two we are supposed to start with Treasure Island,” says Ameera. “Usually we would start with a dress-up, a pirate day, we would do poetry and play songs to get them into this theme of being pirates out on the ocean. But now we will have to eliminate all of that and focus just on what CAPS wants us to assess. There is so much to deal with on a physical, emotional, intellectual and academic level. It’s going to be tough.”

This week teachers are scheduled to return to schools where teams will work together to set up their protocols and plan for the term, though the first day of school for teachers has been delayed in some provinces.

This is a list of resources that will help schools with planning and the development of Covid-19 protocols.  

Schools can access Covid-19 guidelines and protocol templates from the Department of Basic Education and other sources on the Section 27 website.

A Covid-19 research bootcamp hosted by JET Education Services offers valuable insights for school management teams and policymakers.  

A webinar about getting children back to school safely will be hosted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and Inclusive Economic Development (IED) on Friday 29 May, 11am-1pm. RSVP using this link. DM

Kimon Phitidis is a director of Social Innovations, a social investment agency that delivers academic support programmes into public schools. You can read more about these and other teachers in his recently published book Where Light Shines Through: Tales of can-do teachers in South Africa’s no-fee public schools.

 

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