Opinionista Emma Rycroft 22 July 2020

The education crisis will not be solved by an order to return to school

As education authorities in the Western Cape try to get schools to reopen, the plea from principals and teachers for a more nuanced approach in the face of Covid-19 is falling on deaf ears. Schools are not ready for this and the crisis is made worse by prior failings that have never been addressed.

A headmaster in Mitchells Plain recently sent a passionate, angry letter to teachers and principals via WhatsApp. It tells the struggles of a headmaster used to managing with too little and unable to cope in the current climate. He has a staff of 31 with over 1,000 pupils. A bad ratio on a good day. On average, at the moment, he said that 11 teachers are absent daily. Those who are able to work are often unfamiliar with the matric syllabus covered by these teachers and are therefore unable to fill in for those who are absent. 

The letter continues: On top of these constraints, the department has demanded that schools follow impossible Covid-19 guidelines on opening post-lockdown. These guidelines include notification that student and staff trauma should be managed. Finally, a job for all our surplus, under-worked counsellors and social workers. All this and the headmaster adds “can’t even get an outer perimeter fence to ensure the safety of… learners and staff. 

“And when something happens at my school, do you know what the first question by the powers that be, is? Where is your Safety Policy? As if a Safety Policy would stop a would-be assailant from assaulting or robbing a learner or staff member.”

The principal remembers Western Cape Provincial MEC for Education Debbie Schäfer giving him a certificate and a pat on the back for excellent matric results in a previous year. He foresees her wagging her finger at him now as he calls for defiance. He has asked principals to stop submitting information to the education department as doing so serves only to maintain the semblance of functionality. 

Teachers, too, are expected to send daily communications to the department. Every morning, once I have had my temperature checked, I am meant to log on to a website to click “no” to the questions: Do you have a sore throat?; Have you been near anyone diagnosed with Covid-19 in the past few days? etc. No one seems to notice on the days that I forget, but presumably every time I click “submit”, a box is ticked and I am marked as managed.

The WhatsApp message briefly mentions Schäfer’s call for Western Cape schools to open up for Grade 12s and 7s on 1 June 2020. This was her response to the Department of Basic Education’s decision on 31 May 2020 that the return date be postponed across South Africa until 8 June. 

The majority of schools, in the Western Cape and in the rest of the country, were not and are still not ready to have pupils and staff return safely. Schools that did not comply with the order were given a primary-school ticking off, but the impatience and blatant disregard for the state of things as they are, suggested by the order to return to class make it plain that this is not a plan that actually cares for the wellbeing of those within our education system. 

Subsequent to the WhatsApp message being shared widely, the Western Cape Education Department sent a stern message out to staff and principals across the province, calling “upon any principal that disrupts, or causes schooling to be disrupted, directly or indirectly, or influences or causes to influence any learner or learners to stay away from school, to stop doing this immediately”.

This comes after the claim that 99% of schools have reopened successfully, a fact that is hard to swallow and depends heavily on one’s definition of success. 

The truth of the matter is that the majority of the schools in our country are not ready for school, even without Covid-19. Teaching in a rural part of the Eastern Cape two years ago, I had to be careful where I walked in the Grade 8 classroom because I kept falling into a hole in the floor.  After my daily lesson with the Grade 10s, a student had to let me out by wedging the end of a spoon into the self-locking door and turning it just so. 

The point is that children are unable to get into their classrooms, do not have their own desks, are forced to share pens, get rained on when they are trying to learn and are spoken to in a language that they do not know. And now students and schools in these positions are expected to cope quietly with the added strain of a pandemic, and all its regulations.

On one occasion, we arrived for class and the door was locked from the inside. The headmaster got a boy to worm his way through a broken window. Once in, the boy grabbed the spoon passed through to him and let us all inside. My 50 students walked in in front of me and neatly squeezed themselves into the available 24 desks, while I got out my chalk, my list of isiXhosa words, the John Donne poem No man is an Island and my optimistic lesson plan. 

These students had never been taught English. Now they had to learn, and I had to teach them, whole concepts in the language. I have never seen a more effective tool for taking with one hand what you give with the other. Such artful deception. It’s worth mentioning that, on paper, every student has the right to be taught in their home language.

The point is that children are unable to get into their classrooms, do not have their own desks, are forced to share pens, get rained on when they are trying to learn and are spoken to in a language that they do not know. And now students and schools in these positions are expected to cope quietly with the added strain of a pandemic, and all its regulations.

I work in a wealthy school now and am witness to the work and resources needed to make a school safe against Covid-19. We have a maintenance staff sanitising classrooms daily. We have a nurse coming in every morning to help check temperatures. We have access to bleach, hand sanitiser, educational posters, space for students to physically distance, a large staff to cover for absentees, WiFi, enough money for substitute teachers should they become necessary, and a data fund so that those who need to stay at home can stay on top of things. Not to mention a desk per child on any given day. 

The different levels of safety and basic resources that wealthier and poorer schools can offer on-site are one thing. What adds to this is the fact that the wealthy have the luxury of choice to stay at home. If someone in a well-off family is vulnerable, or parents are anxious about their child returning to school, students log on to the internet and access teachers and content virtually. 

Over the past three months, most suburban students have been able to continue school progress, albeit unsteadily, from home. The rest have been left to flounder. Technology and social media are supposed to democratise knowledge. But while we continue to support a system of unequal access, inequality grows.

Cell C has zero-rated certain university websites. What about schools? Schools don’t have websites and would need more than one, limited platform. 

In an ideal world, conglomerates like Vodacom, Cell C and MTN would make WhatsApp and Google Classroom zero-rated for learners. I stand to be corrected on this, but I imagine that with everyone locked inside conducting Zoom meetings, trying to learn from a distance, binging on Instagram and Netflix, the amount of data usage has gone through the roof. Are the profit margins of these companies not healthy enough to provide their current and future consumers with free, unconditional access to educational platforms? 

The MTN Foundation’s manifesto declares that “using technology to drive social development, particularly through education, is core to the Foundation’s efforts”. They have made their online services zero-rated during lockdown, so that you can buy from them for free. But they don’t appear to have gone much further than that. 

Cell C has zero-rated certain university websites. What about schools? Schools don’t have websites and would need more than one, limited platform. 

Vodacom has put together a zero-rated “e-schooling” programme, where students can access CAPS learning for free. While this is a step in the right direction, the badge that kids win on each completed section of work does not make up for the lack of interaction with a teacher, or the impossibility of asking a question when the work seems too complicated or too frustrating to even find a way in. It does not make up for the lack of peers to talk through the work with and to work alongside. It feels like an empty gesture, something that doesn’t cost much and allows them to say, “Look, we tried to help”. 

If students were able to stay home and get access to their teachers and content through the internet, we would be able to stall the opening of schools until they were actually ready. Learning could happen online, imperfectly, for all students. Schools would have time to make sure that they had received all their PPE (including working thermometers. See the Daily Maverick article about the unnecessary death of a beloved primary school teacher), that they understood the protocol sent from the department, implemented what was possible, alerted the department to what was not, and put in place action plans to be implemented in the case of a student or teacher contracting Covid-19. Online teaching is not a substitute for learning and teaching in-class. We need to return to school, but only when we can all safely do so. 

Although capitalism values what is quantitative above all else, it is worth noting that free access to WhatsApp and Google Classroom would also go some way in allowing students to process the current moment. On these platforms, learners are able to share their thoughts, fears, traumas, questions, even if just with their teachers or friends. To deny children a means of self-expression and being heard now, when they are more isolated than they have ever been, is to ensure that they struggle with themselves and the world later on. 

The experienced principal of a school in Mitchells Plain is reaching the end of his tether and is desperate to be heard. Imagine the position of a teenager who has never been given the tools to cope with a crisis and who does not even have the data with which to send a message to a peer, teacher, or grandparent to say, “help”, or, “I miss you”. It hardly needs saying that the dream of providing a councillor to every child that needs one can no longer be entertained, on paper or in reality.

Jonathan Jansen recently called for Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga to close schools for the rest of 2020. He suggests that low-income students become dependent on broadcast education to maintain their learning, while rich ones continue to work with their schools online. 

Even if networks suddenly provided students and teachers alike with all the online access they needed, things would not go smoothly. Not every child has access to a device. Perhaps people would donate, perhaps they would not. In many households, all the adults have to be at work during the day. What are they supposed to do with young children not yet allowed at school? They cannot take indefinite days off in order to look after them. What about the students who rely on school for their daily meals? 

The fact also remains that in some homes and communities, physical distancing is possible while in others (read most), it is simply not. Not going to school does not necessarily remove danger. Besides all this, many teachers and learners are unfamiliar with computers, never mind the use of Google Classroom and WhatsApp. 

But we must do something. Perhaps a better suggestion is that we keep the Grade 12s and 7s in school and continue with the rest online, where online learning is made accessible to all. That way our matriculants would at least get some “real” teaching in preparation for the final exams. Maybe schools have enough space and enough staff to manage this. Whatever the solution, it would be more easily reached if major companies and the uber-wealthy, even the marginally wealthy, took a step towards caring for those in the country who have been repeatedly marginalised.

Jonathan Jansen recently called for Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga to close schools for the rest of 2020. He suggests that low-income students become dependent on broadcast education to maintain their learning, while rich ones continue to work with their schools online. 

This blunt and easy separation of the classes does not sit well. I was discussing the return to school with a Grade 11 student the other day. Packing away his books, he made his final point, “Like, ma’am, I get the dilemma. But are they saying education,” here he used his hands as scales, lifting the right one up, “over lives?” 

At first, I thought it seemed that way. But thinking it over now, I don’t think that that is what they’re saying, or at least it’s not what is true. The now aphoristic “rather miss a Grade than dig a grave” is unhelpful and misses the point. The dilemma is not “lose lives to a broken economy versus lose lives to the virus” or “open schools unprepared versus don’t open schools at all”. There are assumed choices behind these ones. 

The true, more essential dilemma might be “reconfigure the economy versus let the poor die”. Or “share resources versus sustain strict capitalism”. If this is so, can we, the wealthy, humanly go on in our assumption and comfortable belief that the first option is impossible? 

As for education, particularly: We have always treated students and teachers who are on the margins incredibly, in the literal sense. If they continue to be abused, there will be a necessary revolution. We cannot pretend to be surprised, and I will not be on the side of those who subscribe to the façade of functionality, when it happens. DM 

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