Opinionista Jillian Green 17 October 2020

In lockdown, a change is as good as a holiday

My daughter came home from school the other day with a speech assignment. The topic to be discussed: “How has lockdown changed me?” Oh, where to begin?

First published in Daily Maverick 168

As a mother, I can see quite clearly the impact this experience has had on her and her younger sister. I also see how differently, because of it, they move through the world.

They are both a bit more anxious when leaving the house. Every sniffle, sneeze or cough is greeted with suspicion and the teenage quip “coroooonaviiiiirus” under their breath that either leaves us exasperated or in a fit of laughter. They sanitise religiously at every door, often remind us about masks and handwashing, while the little one has all number of reasons we should not send her back to school.  

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There have been other changes too.

The extended time we have spent together as a family has improved the way we communicate. I would have expected more fights and irritation but these have been few and far between, thankfully. We’ve learnt more about and shared more with each other without the busyness and distractions that abounded during pre-Covid times.

Their relationships with their peers have also evolved. Time spent with friends is more precious than before, teenage upsets don’t last as long, a seemingly unconscious understanding that time is fleeting and nothing should be taken for granted has developed. We’ve become more resilient.

Their education has been one area where this nimbleness and resilience has been called on again and again as their schools and the department of education battled to adapt..

Both my girls – one in high school, the other in primary – attend two of Johannesburg’s better and well-resourced government schools. Their lockdown education experience has been a hundred times better than for thousands of children around the country. They have been able to learn throughout thanks to the technology – internet access, online lessons via Microsoft Teams, physical and electronic worksheets – available to them. Two parents working from home have been able to assist them.  

Yet, despite this privilege, I can’t help but think the Basic Education Department, teachers and teacher unions have let them down by missing a golden opportunity to fundamentally change or at least experiment with different ways of delivering education to children.

At a time when other sectors were – to use a buzzword – pivoting to ensure their survival by introducing remote working or changing their core businesses our education sector continued to force a round peg into a square hole – there was/is a curriculum to complete, continued assessments and tests to be done and admin to be handed in.

Every so often a moment arrives that provides an opportunity to break away from the old. The pandemic was that opportunity for education, especially given the inequality that exists within the sector.

Credit must be given to teachers and schools who learnt how to use technology to continue teaching, but judging by the online lessons I listened in on, all that changed from how teaching is done in the classroom was that the physical space was now virtual. Interaction between teachers and pupils was nonexistent and if I was bored, the teenager with her head on the desk was comatose. Again, my girls are among the privileged ones. When tests and assessments are upon them, they will do okay.

What of those less privileged and less resourced who are going to have to undergo the same testing? Should they once again be penalised for the inequality that exists in the system?

Covid-19 provided an opportunity to put the status quo on pause. We could have taken a bold decision early in lockdown to put the school year in abeyance.

Primary school learners could have focused solely on reading, writing and arithmetic, creating a perfect opportunity to work on the basic skills that are so lacking, as the Annual National Assessment results consistently show us.

Secondary school pupils between grades 8 and 10 could have been given a reading list (so many libraries were making books available freely online and these could have been sent out chapter by chapter via WhatsApp and email where available. To ensure books were being read, essays could be set.

We could have borrowed an idea out of the international school where high school pupils are tasked with choosing a building to study. Through this project they immerse themselves in learning all aspects of that building from architecture, construction, quantity surveying, energy supply to history. This would have freed up teachers to focus on grade 11s and 12s who are on the way out of the system. The sector would’ve had time to think creatively about meeting future education needs and preparing future leaders for the fourth industrial revolution.

So, Minister Angie Motshekga and teachers: “How has lockdown changed you?” DM/DM168

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