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No pulse, no heartbeat: Why bringing more grades back to school just won’t work


Dr Sara Black works as a contract lecturer for the University of Cape Town, teaching research design for the master’s students in the School of Education there. She is also a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation at the University of Johannesburg.

Far from being banal bureaucratic documents, timetables are the heartbeat of a school. Without them, nothing works. Trying to manage timetables when Covid-19 demands physical distancing, and with teachers booked off sick, is a nightmare.

As the Covid-19 pandemic accelerates, the messiness of allowing more students back, while adhering to physical distancing measures, has become more apparent. Teachers, parents, SGBs and principals are increasingly sounding the alarm that doing so safely – especially in schools with no additional staff (about 80% of schools) – is not feasible.

This realisation was the conclusion I came to a month ago when I did an analysis for the Equal Education Law Centre (EELC) on the Department of Basic Education’s timetabling guidelines for student readmission. My concluding comment in that email exchange, on 21 May 2020, read as follows:

“Schools can probably open to readmit one grade cohort of students and adhere to physical distancing guidelines and protect their vulnerable staff… But as soon as this goes up to two grade cohorts (Grade 11s and/or Grade 6s), no doing. You’ll need to have more groups (of students) than you have teachers, including principal, and everyone will be teaching every lesson every day, which doesn’t work. Taking on two grade cohorts and adhering to physical distancing is just not possible without expanding staff workload by extending the school day through platooning, or denying children full access to school, using an alternating or rotational model.” (communique, EELC, 21 May 2020.)

What prompted this exchange with EELC is my research into schooling timetables over the last four-and-a-half years. Far from being banal bureaucratic documents, timetables are the heartbeat of a school. Without them, nothing works. They tell everyone where to be, when, and for what purpose. Those of us with experience in schools know how difficult they are to design well, and how chopping and changing makes them unstable. Changes to rooming, staffing, curriculum offering, as well as to student intake, all hit the timetable. Let me briefly explain why timetables are so important, before unpacking what they can tell us about more grades returning to school during the pandemic.

Timetables: The heartbeat of the school

My doctoral dissertation explores how schools that can keep these inputs stable – spaces, staff, students and subjects – produce a tempo of teaching and learning that produces results, while schools that cannot keep these stable, or don’t have enough to cover the bases, struggle to effect meaningful teaching and learning. I call the former group fortified schools, and the latter group exposed schools.

Fortified schools are able to weather knocks and changes, the normal day-to-day ebb and flow of events and challenges that every school faces e.g. a member of staff who is sick, an incident with a child, a room that is off limits due to maintenance etc. In short, fortified schools have different types of buffers and insurances so that normal knocks don’t interrupt teaching and learning: the heartbeat of the school continues, and the timetable is sufficiently elastic and resilient so that it keeps the flow moving. Need to change rooms? No problem: Room A5 is free. Colleague off sick? No problem: there are six free teachers who could share the load of substitution. Students want to take Art? No problem: we’ve enough people and rooms to offer Art.

But exposed schools do not have these buffers and options. They are vulnerable to any knock, and – due to their socioeconomic situation AND often their physical location – they are subject to a lot more knocks to boot. 

Exposed schools have only just enough staff on a good day when no one is absent. Their classes are a lot bigger, making incidents harder to deal with and personal attention harder to give. They also can’t hire extra support and administrative staff, leaving teachers with a huge burden of administrative and pastoral work to do in what few free periods they have.

Exposed schools don’t have enough rooms and teachers to offer a spread of curriculum, so their subject offerings are narrower and students are often doing subjects they are not interested in. Or, less popular subjects with smaller student numbers in one area means that another subject must take on more students, shrinking one teacher’s class and overloading another’s (you can imagine the inter-staff stress and tension this creates).

Exposed schools’ timetables are often unstable, changing from term to term (or even more frequently). As a result, teachers and students don’t trust the timetable to tell them where to be and when (it’s constantly changing – another additional burden on exposed schools! Doing a whole school timetable is a complex combinatorics problem that takes a lot of time and effort). The heartbeat of the school becomes erratic and fails to regulate the day to day activity of lessons and lesson support.

To make matters more complex, schools that were once fortified are finding themselves increasingly exposed as parents can’t or won’t pay fees: school-hired (SGB) teachers are finding themselves with enormous pay cuts, if they are able to keep their jobs at all.

Fortified schools make up about 5-10% of SA’s public education system. Exposed schools are about 80-85%. And the in-betweens are somewhere between 5-10%.

Why do some schools become fortified and the others not? The answer is simple: fees. Schools that can attract and collect fees hire a LOT more staff (sometimes more than doubling what the government sends). They build more classrooms. They inject what I call “elasticity” into their timetable and lesson organisation so that if a room is off limits, or students want an additional subject, or a staff member is sick, it doesn’t matter. The shock absorbers take the bump in the road and lessons continue.

Exposed schools have no extra money above what the government sends them, and it isn’t enough. It’s like driving with no shock absorbers: at best, a really bumpy ride, and – if continued as a default mode of operating – constant flat tyres, chassis damage and ineffective brakes. Or, to use another metaphor very familiar to most South Africans, exposed schools are constantly “load shedding” lessons as the “supply” in the system is barely enough to meet the lesson needs of the curriculum. Just as with Eskom, when one generator fails, one substation goes down, or the system needs maintenance and repair, something’s got to give. The margin between the “supply” and the “demand” is just too thin.

Timetables are the (complex) axis around which the system drives. By looking at a timetable, you can see if a school can weather knocks, or if it must load shed when daily challenges arrive.

Timetabling for Covid-19: An intractable problem.

Fast forward to Covid-19 and all of a sudden, the seemingly dry process of timetabling rears its complex, ugly head. Some subject departments are hit extra hard by sick/infected and/or vulnerable teachers. Class sizes have to be reduced to meet physical distancing requirements, which increases the number of student groups/lessons at any one time and gobbles up available staff and spaces. 

To make matters more complex, schools that were once fortified are finding themselves increasingly exposed as parents can’t or won’t pay fees: school-hired (SGB) teachers are finding themselves with enormous pay cuts, if they are able to keep their jobs at all.

Here’s a concrete example to illustrate the point. A high school of 1,000 students would get about 26-28 teachers (including two deputies and a principal) from the government. An exposed school won’t have the money from fees to hire more, so this is what they work with.

When their 180-200 Grade 12s come back to school, they must divide these students up into classes of 15-20 to keep enough space between them: what would’ve been five normal classes of 40 students each, becomes 10-14 classes. This is all fine with 26-28 teachers, assuming that there are no comorbidities or Covid-19 infections that have anyone booked off. It’s even manageable if, say, 20-25% of teachers are vulnerable and should stay home (this is an illustrative estimate: in some schools it will be more, in others less). Even then, you’d have 20-21 teachers to cover 10-14 classes (although principals are hoping that those who are sheltering in place are not all the maths teachers! The distribution of comorbidities across subject areas is a sticky problem).

As creative as teachers can be, they cannot feed the 5,000 with two fish and five loaves.

But as soon as you try to bring back a second grade, there are problems. Bringing back the Grade 11s now means you have to have 20-28 separate groups of students to adhere to distancing guidelines. Even if everyone (including the principal) is teaching every lesson (which is just not viable) you can’t cover them all and physically distance appropriately. It just doesn’t work. Not without creating double shifts (which will burn teachers out badly), or alternating days/weeks (which means curriculum coverage is shot, as are all the other supposed benefits of reopening schools, such as feeding schemes and babysitting for working parents).

None of this has even begun to scratch the surface of the quality of teaching and learning that (can’t) happen under such conditions. Reports from teachers on the ground, even with one grade back at school, tell of how constant disinfecting and cleaning, monitoring and SDM compliance are making actual lesson time so miniscule as to be meaningless. 

An hour becomes half an hour. Half an hour becomes 10 minutes of lesson time. As infected teachers are sent home to isolate, the timetable is changed. And changed again. And again. As Dr Heather Jacklin’s article in Daily Maverick (5 June 2020) illustrated, teachers are aware that, in reality, the purpose of reopening schools is not about teaching and learning at all, since doing so under such conditions is nigh on impossible.

All this as infection rates skyrocket. It is hence unsurprising that teachers in exposed schools that serve the poor are picketing and calling for at minimum no more grades to return (and some for schools to close entirely). 

In addition, once fortified – but increasingly precarious – schools are losing their supplementary fee-income, and they are beginning to find themselves in the same boat. If the public provision of rooms and staff is inadequate without top-ups from fees even during “normal” times for the majority of our schools, it is certainly inadequate for the pandemic moment. 

As creative as teachers can be, they cannot feed the 5,000 with two fish and five loaves.

Members of the public should expect increasing resistance from schools to readmitting more grades. Moreover, I would argue, they should listen to the voices of those working in schools as to the nature of the problem, and offer their support and solidarity to those faced with these intractable challenges. DM


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