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Remote learning for very young children during the pandemic is perfectly feasible, but it demands a whole-of-society approach

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Dr Magali von Blottnitz is a French national who settled in South Africa in 2001. She holds a PhD from the University of Cape Town on the Financing of Small Businesses in South Africa. She has contributed to works for the Policy Board for Financial Services and Regulation, the Trade and Industry Policy Secretariat, the City of Cape Town and Seda. She has worked with Time in 2021 in a pro bono capacity.

Rolling out physical distance learning resources to vulnerable children during a pandemic and supporting their daily use in the home is not a walk in the park. It requires a whole chain of support where NGOs, district officials, teachers, heads, parents and the extended family engage with each other.

On 22 November 2021, Daily Maverick published a powerful opinion piece by Maryke Bailey in which she laments the lack of foresight of the Department of Education in responding to the disruptions caused by the prolonged Covid-19 pandemic. Bailey expresses frustrations that, no doubt, are shared by many in the education sector.

Bailey proposes a few ideas for dealing with the academic and psycho-social losses that the pandemic has caused to South African children — starting with the following suggestion:

“Trash the expectation that e-learning will be rolled out across all schools by 1 January 2022. Create and distribute distance-learning resources (physical, not digital) that students can do daily, whether they are at school or not. Daily reading and writing activities and logic games might sound like low-impact effort, but learning is practice, and too many kids are not getting daily stimulation with the platoon system that many schools have adopted. This is actually an easy quick-fix that should have been up and running towards the middle of 2020. If it has been done in some instances, please let all schools know about it, because young people are sitting at home for days doing nothing productive.”

Since 2020, the non-profit sector has been hard at work designing new adaptive responses to address the multi-layered scenarios that have been observed since the outbreak of the pandemic in an effort to protect and support the most vulnerable learners.

One such response has been the Together In My Education (Time) programme, a comprehensive home learning programme for the youngest scholars, in Grades R and 1 (Time is the 2021 improved version of a prototype called Read and Write With Me developed in 2020, in the early days of the pandemic.)

Time consists of high-quality packs of materials that provide parents or caregivers of Grade R and Grade 1 children learners with attractive daily activities, available in three languages, and supplemented with multi-media messages. It was developed collaboratively by a consortium of NGOs in partnership with the Western Cape Department of Education, and rolled out to the homes of children through 221 schools, reaching over 50,000 children in 2021.

Rolling out physical distance learning resources to vulnerable children during a time of pandemic and supporting their daily use in the home is not a walk in the park, at least not as far as very young learners are concerned. Designing contents that are pitched at the right level and cater for a large variety of home contexts, in itself, takes some effort.

Perhaps more importantly, effective engagement of children (and, in Grade R and 1, their caregivers) with those resources cannot be taken for granted; rather, it requires a whole chain of support where NGOs, district officials, teachers, heads, parents and the extended family engage with each other, sometimes with the further support of community volunteers or other players. It cannot be instructed in a top-down approach but rather is a formidable opportunity to adopt a whole-of-society approach (Wosa) combining bottom-up, peer-to-peer and transversal networks of partnerships.

As an independent Monitoring, Evaluation & Learning (MEL) consultant, I have been involved this year in a pro bono capacity in designing and supervising the implementation of field studies across the users of the Time resources. The data which we have collected have confirmed that the benefits of the Time approach are far-ranging.

At the individual level, in a time of great psycho-social stress for young children, it was very encouraging that nearly all respondents to our field studies have confirmed a strengthened bond between the child and their family. Many vulnerable children have also surprised their parents and teachers with their improved confidence as well as their language and mathematical skills.

At a system level, there is the potential for addressing learning losses in the short term, but more importantly, bringing families into their children’s learning journey.

The Time programme has also recently been recognised in a Unesco publication, Learning to Build Back Better Futures For Education: Lessons from educational innovation during the Covid-19 pandemic (see pages 301-308).

In 2022, Wordworks will roll out the third, continuously improved version of the Time programme. Many lessons have been learnt over the past two years of implementation, which Wordworks will gladly share with the DBE or other stakeholders, should any of them wish to either support the Time programme’s roll out to more homes, including translation into other South African languages, or to engage with the Time team to learn from their experience. DM

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