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State of disaster may be over, but let’s be cautious in the classroom as we salvage two tough years


Prof Michael le Cordeur is Vice-Dean Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Education at the University of Stellenbosch. He is deputy chair of the Stigting vir die bemagtiging deur Afrikaans.

Although most Covid-19 health regulations have been lifted, the baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater.

Much time has passed since South Africa was hit by the Covid-19 pandemic on 20 March 2020. Since then, nearly four million South Africans have been diagnosed with the virus, of whom 101,717 died.

By this time, everyone knows that on 22 June 2022 the government lifted certain national Covid-19-related health regulations like the wearing of masks and the limits on the numbers of people at events. The impact of this on education is enormous. The announcement came just two days before the end of the second school term which has led to many queries from the public.

Parents should note that the announcement by the government is not absolute. School governing bodies still need to take a decision — which is binding on that specific school. A school could decide that learners must continue wearing face masks.

Gradually we will have to get accustomed to the fact that Covid-19, like flu and tuberculosis, should be treated as an epidemic instead of a pandemic. Both refer to the outbreak of a dreaded disease but where an epidemic is more concentrated in a specific region, a pandemic occurs worldwide. Other pandemics which have hit the world were the Spanish flu (1918-1920) which killed between 17 and 100 million people, and HIV/Aids, to which 36 million people have succumbed. Worldwide about 6.3 million people have already died of Covid-19.

A study at the University of the Western Cape has revealed that one out of every five South Africans above the age of 15 lives with more than one serious illness. That is why everyone should continue to apply suitable health and safety measures — against Covid, but also against flu and tuberculosis which claim many lives, especially in the Western Cape with its wet winters. Discussions with teachers have indicated that learners have had fewer colds and flu this year, probably due to the wearing of face masks.

The past six months have been a struggle to catch up on the academic backlogs. Schools which have not had access to online education were forced to rotate class attendance. This meant that learners, especially in the foundation phase, could not attend school regularly and effective learning of reading and writing could not take place.

Today we sit with learners in grades 3 and 4 who are illiterate. A language teacher mentioned that his grade 6 paper for the June examination was based on the grade 5 syllabus; this while he had to prepare the same learners for systemic tests.

Teachers have also pointed out the backlog in numeric comprehension. Owing to learners’ poor reading comprehension, they struggle with problem-solving, something which is also found at high school level and even at university.

Another concerning aspect is that learners’ handwriting has deteriorated or was never developed. Learners who missed most of their grade 3 in 2020, for example, never learned cursive writing, and will probably never learn it. Among learners who have managed it to an extent, some write the a and o so similarly that you cannot distinguish between them.

Routine and discipline

Many teachers indicate that learners’ discipline and routine have deteriorated. Routines such as remaining quiet while someone reads aloud, putting your hand up to ask a question, or requesting permission to leave the classroom, have been forgotten. In many schools, teachers have to teach these routines anew.

According to the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, tuition and education are a social interaction between child, teacher and co-learners. During times of isolation, the home does not provide this learning environment. On returning to school, it was striking how many learners’ social skills had deteriorated. They had lost the habit of interacting courteously and addressing the teacher with respect. Tempers flare which leads to fighting on the school grounds and even in the classroom. Absenteeism among learners is the highest ever. School principals remark that governing body meetings had tripled, mostly to deal with disciplinary cases.

In the Western Cape, an intensive programme is being rolled out to address the backlogs and challenges. However, it still depends on each school and principal to ensure that it takes place.

The abolition of the wearing of face masks will certainly have its advantages. In the foundation phase, it is important that the teacher’s mouth is visible when new sounds and their pronunciation are practiced. It is also important to be able to see the teacher’s facial expression when teaching learners concepts such as joy and fear. It promotes reading comprehension. That is why the wearing of masks (or not) should be applied with nuance in primary school.

New strategies which were acquired during the pandemic have moved South Africa to the 4th Industrial Revolution overnight. Schools will still have the advantage of online tuition available, which can be applied in tandem with class attendance, to address overcrowded classes.

Lost chances

It remains a concern that the national government has not made use of the opportunity to address inequality in education. Essential facilities — like running water — are still absent from many schools. Here is another valuable lesson: it is clear that the government will not be able to do everything for schools. The lack of funds remains problematic while the lack of political will can no longer be denied. It shifts the responsibility to school communities to take action themselves to create a learning environment that is conducive to learning.

Although it is heartening that we can return to some form of “normal” after more than two years, Covid is not over. We have recently heard that the number of infections in the United Kingdom is increasing again. That is why we dare not throw out the baby with the bathwater. I still believe that vaccination is our best defence against the virus and its mutations.

So don’t pack away the hand sanitiser and face mask just yet. DM


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