The announcement by Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga that all learners had to return to school from Monday 7 February 2022 is to be welcomed.
Some of the other important lockdown regulations which were altered by Cabinet and are immediately effective include that people who get Covid-19 but are asymptomatic, no longer have to isolate. For those who test positive for Covid-19 but do show symptoms, the isolation period is decreased from 10 to seven days and contacts no longer have to isolate.
The educational arguments in favour of a return to school are overwhelming. The main one is that school time is lost and this leads to large school learning losses. It is especially the school subjects like languages and maths which are hardest hit because these subjects require that learners must be in school regularly.
I am often asked if we will ever eradicate the backlogs. Personally, I think that it will be extremely difficult, but teachers — I am referring to those who still see teaching as a calling — have now proven that they can achieve miracles. Thus, we are holding our breath.
There are also social matters which have deteriorated due to the rotation system, under which learners only went to school on alternate days or weeks. In discussions with teachers, principals and subject advisors I was informed that the absence of learners (and dare I say some teachers) had caused them to lose the culture of getting up for school every day.
I also hear that learners’ discipline has drastically deteriorated and that learners in the foundation phase where skills have to be acquired do not have the required attention span. This will further complicate the catching up of backlogs. Here I refer especially to learners in our poorer areas who also suffer from other negative environmental factors.
Focus on skills
It will require a huge effort from education authorities but also the broader society to reverse the current state of affairs. I can only hope that schools and especially education authorities will adapt their teaching and even their policies to make provision for this. A curriculum is a human-made construct and we can, and should, adapt it as circumstances dictate. Therefore, the emphasis in the next few years must fall on numeracy (maths) and languages. Especially the home language requires attention because it will play a big role in conceptualising new knowledge and thus catching up the backlog.
Utilise the energy
On a social level, the return to school is also timeous: children have built up much pent-up energy and if it is applied wrongly, it leads to all sorts of social evils including teen pregnancy and drug and alcohol abuse.
Here, in my own town, I have observed how children have applied their energy in a positive way. Everywhere, I see that children have built “cricket pitches” and how different neighbourhoods have battled one another. At least two examples stand out: the one in Van Wyk’s Vlei, Wellington and the one in Groenheuwel, Paarl. I also observe that children from Mbekweni township between Wellington and Paarl use every available piece of open ground to play soccer. They have organised themselves in age groups, to boot!
In this way, the children send a very clear message to the education authorities and schools: if you do not organise school sports for learners, we will do it ourselves! As so often mentioned before in this column: here is another opportunity that has arisen from the Covid-19 crisis. We are in the athletics season and I see how the children are running relay races in the street. Let us utilise that energy and arrange inter-house athletics events for them. According to the new regulations, 2,000 parents may attend.
Overcrowded classrooms still problematic
There are still many other aspects of our school communities that must be rebuilt. It will not happen overnight and will require hard work and time. For this, we require a healthy and committed teaching corps. The Cabinet decision rests mainly on the fact that the number of people with immunity to Covid-19 has increased considerably — to as much as 80% according to scientists.
This has been made possible because a great number of citizens have been vaccinated — also 80% of teachers. This is laudable. According to the statement by Cabinet, they encourage people to continue getting vaccinated and following health protocols.
Vaccination our only hope
There is still one aspect which must be clarified: overcrowded classrooms. Our country requires many more schools. This is not possible at the moment, for South Africa has no money. I will not go into the reasons again. They are known to everyone.
Our only hope is that as many teachers and learners as possible are vaccinated. DM