OP-ED

Leave no child behind: Lessons learnt so far from Covid-19 on future-proofing education

By Leon Roets 10 May 2021

The reality is that even though we have made gains during the Covid-19 pandemic, our education system has not been future-proofed. (Photo: Gallo Images/OJ Koloti)

What will happen in schools and education globally if another pandemic strikes or if Covid-19 spirals out of control with more aggressive variants? The reality is that even though we have made gains during the pandemic our education system has not been future-proofed. However, we now have the best picture of what needs to be done to achieve this.

Leon Roets is Head of the Department of Physical Sciences at Redhill School in Sandton, and is completing his Master’s in Educational Management and Leadership from the University of Johannesburg. He also teaches International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme Chemistry and Advanced Programme Physics. The views expressed here are his own.

Bill Gates, the World Health Organization (WHO), and epidemiologists globally warn that Covid-19 will not be the last pandemic that we will face. As before Covid-19, Gates has warned global leaders once more that they should not only be fighting the current pandemic, but should be preparing for the next.

One of the facets of society that was hardest hit by the pandemic and is still experiencing repercussions is education. In 2020, no country’s educational system was left untouched, as has been reported by Alma Harris of the Swansea University School of Education in Wales in the Journal of Professional Capital and Community. However, sentiment among many school leaders has been that it is a short-term crisis that needs to be waited out. Even in South Africa that has seemed to be the case with the often slow response and lack of communication from the departments of basic and higher education for schools and other institutions of learning to guide their management and navigation of this pandemic.

Heeding the warning of Gates and others, due to a globalised and connected world while not discounting the possibility of future biological warfare as some conspiracy theorists have argued regarding the current pandemic, we have to ask if the education sector will be better suited to respond to the next time?

In a study of 43 school organisations around the globe regarding crisis leadership in schools during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic published in Frontiers in Education, Scott McLeod from the University of Colorado, Denver, and Shelley Dulsky, a teacher in the Cherry Creek school district in the United States, contemplate what transpired in the education sector globally.

School leaders normally have crises to deal with from time to time, such as difficult parents, a fight on the school grounds, a scandal involving a teacher or the death of a student or staff member, they write. These crises are normally short-lived. However, the pandemic has created a long-lasting crisis that will affect education even if Covid-19 becomes something of the past.

Not only would the educational landscape have shifted, but the inequities and inequalities laid bare and left behind in its wake will still need to be dealt with. This does not only include rising unemployment and falling behind on teaching schedules, but also the emotional wreckage of staff, students and parents alike. Worse still is the possibility of another, new pandemic somewhere in the future.

Harris argues that the pandemic has created the opportunity to change the educational leadership landscape for the better. However, McLeod and Dulsky point out that what we need is better crisis leadership in schools if we want to better this new world we are living in.

Crisis leadership is seen as the ability of a leader to increase organisational resilience before, during and after a crisis. It is leadership that not only requires “effective communication and response coordination, but also attentiveness to the general wellbeing and health of employees and other stakeholders,” state McLeod and Dulsky.

To answer the question as to whether education has been future-proofed, we first need to understand how schools navigated the crisis we are still in. In a conversation with a teacher at one of the ex-model C schools in Stellenbosch, Western Cape, she describes how their school has requested departmental permission to follow a hybrid educational model where students attend school online and at school on a rotational basis even if the pandemic passes.

In another conversation, with a teacher at an ex-Model C school in Thabazimbi, Limpopo, he describes how they were not able to continue with school during the height of lockdown due to their students having limited internet access, even though they are a “rich” school.

Examining the newspaper headlines on unreturned tablets provided to learners in the Eastern Cape, schools that were unable to open for weeks due to lack of delivery of personal protective equipment (PPE), and the horror stories of lost learning time and deficits in abilities of pupils from teachers, we can only conclude that this pandemic was, in general, not managed well. It was costly, damaging, and just increased the divide between those who have and those who do not.

We do, however, need to balance this view with stories of hope of which there were also plenty — learners and teachers who persevered despite immense challenges. At my school, a high-end private school in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, I had the privilege of being part of a new website, Subjex, that created video content for Grade 12 learners for their final exams. The financial model requires students who can afford the courses to pay for it, while those who cannot are given free access through collaboration with iSchoolAfrica, Tomorrow Trust, and the Alexandra Education Committee.

On a more national front, we witnessed the zero-rating of many educational websites by telecommunications service providers which makes the future of hybrid learning more probable if we can get students appropriate devices and provide local educators with the necessary skills and training.

However, what answers does this provide for the future? How can it prepare us for what might come? McLeod and Dulsky argue that those school leaders who were able to best respond in the crisis were those who first of all had a vision founded on clear values — values that guided their response and decisions.

Second, these leaders ensured that their communication with all stakeholders was reassuring and clear. Third, they empowered their communities by involving them and focusing on family engagement as a way to ensure that stakeholders are not left feeling isolated. Fourth, they took care of their own physical and emotional wellbeing and prioritised this for their staff and students too while building organisational capacity.

Organisational capacity for these leaders was not built through the piling of pressure on the staff to ensure student success, rather a network of empathy, encouragement and support was built where online staff meetings became a place to share victories and challenges in a caring community.

Finally, these leaders were equity-oriented, focused on ensuring that no one in their community was left behind.

This final trademark stands in contrast to the reality experienced across the globe when comparing the outcomes for teaching and learning during 2020 for learners from high-end private schools and those in other schools. Harris states that while private schools in the US were concerned with missing their bottom line due to parents not being able to meet financial commitments with 97% internet and computer access, state school staff fought with tenacity and determination and an unshakable moral purpose to do their best for their children who were most at risk with a mere 6% of these schools being able to present one lesson a day online.

This digital divide is much worse in South Africa and the anecdote of a principal at a relatively well-off primary school in Meyerton, Gauteng, highlights the contrast:

“While we had to print hard copies of work illegally and distribute them at the local store (during lockdown), the private school teachers were teaching from the comfort of their own homes, with no kid left behind. I wish I could say none of our students was left behind.”

The reality is that even though we have made gains during the Covid-19 pandemic, our education system has not been future-proofed. However, we now have the best picture we probably would ever have of what needs to be done to achieve this.

We need to capitalise on the zero-rated educational websites, we need public-private partnerships that can equitably fund technology and we need crisis leaders, as even without Covid-19 the South African educational system has been in a state of crisis for many years and if we do not start solving some of those issues with rising unemployment, increasing polarisation and inequity, we might soon reach a tipping point from which we will not be able to recover.

If another pandemic is to strike, I hope that we will be able to respond in a manner that is equity-oriented, focused on the emotional and physical wellbeing of staff, communicate in a manner that is clear and reassuring and be guided by a vision and values that compel us to leave no student behind. DM

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