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As schools prepare for full return in July, safety is paramount, but new teaching approaches also critical

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Prof Michael le Cordeur is the Vice-Dean Teaching and Learning in the Education Faculty at the University of Stellenbosch.

One of the greatest mistakes made in 2020 was focusing only on matriculants and neglecting the lower grades. Matric focuses on content that an 18-year-old child can master with little support. In contrast, the child in the foundation phase needs supervision and guidance.

The announcement that all primary school learners will return to school on 28 July 2021 has been widely welcomed — also by teachers’ unions. Schools will follow a “risk-adjusted differentiated strategy” according to which each school’s approach will be adapted to its specific circumstances. That schools must supply reasons if they cannot comply with this guideline is a step in the right direction. This will prevent exploitation of the system by some.

With such an important decision, two basic aspects must be taken into account. First: is it safe? South Africa is experiencing a sharp increase in Covid-19 infections. Recently, 52 teachers and 11 learners in the Western Cape tested positive for the virus. This again raises questions regarding the safety of teachers and learners. Most experts agree, however, that the virus risk is greater outside the school than inside. Hopefully, the adapted Level 2 regulations will help to decrease the third wave when learners return.

The second aspect to be kept in mind is related to learning losses. Study reports of the National Income Dynamics Study — Coronavirus Mobile Survey show that the learning losses of Grade 4 learners in their home language is about 76%. Learning losses also occur on a large scale in mathematics. The school curriculum consists of two streams: content subjects like geography and history and subjects where skill plays a role, like languages and mathematics.

Mastering critical skills like reading and writing depends on regular class attendance so that consolidation can take place. Unfortunately, grade 1 to 5 learners in 2020 lost nearly 60% of their tuition time. Add to that the fact that the majority of learners do not have access to online facilities at home, and you can understand why they are being left behind. It is these children whose parents need to work and are forced to leave their kids to their own devices. Another concerning aspect is that the general discipline of learners has deteriorated due to the lack of regular routine.

Thus, it is gratifying that the government is learning from its mistakes. One of the greatest mistakes made in 2020 was focusing only on matriculants and neglecting the lower grades. Matric focuses on content that an 18-year-old child can master with little support. In contrast, the child in the foundation phase needs supervision and guidance.

That is why adjustments are required to catch up on the backlog. A curriculum is a human construct that we can adapt according to our circumstances. What is needed is a post-Covid curriculum for a year or two where more time is spent on acquiring skills. A child who cannot read and write cannot progress in other subjects anyway.

Learning does not only have to take place in classrooms. For the sake of social distancing, all spaces should be utilised fully. I have previously mentioned that learning on the sports field is possible, and even on the playground where learners can write in the sand.

Safety in the learning environment remains a priority. If we take into account that the average age of teachers is 50, we must seriously consider giving the vaccine to all teachers over 50. DM

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