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Too little too late for schools facing multiple deprivation during lockdown

By Lehlohonolo Mofokeng

When President Ramaphosa proactively announced a country-wide lockdown to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus and to allow hospitals to gear up for the inevitable onslaught, vulnerabilities that exist in our schools facing multiple deprivation (rural and township schools) were exposed. As the rest of the world has been brought to a screeching halt by this pandemic, governments and other sectors of society have been hard at work brainstorming strategies to better deal with this unprecedented health emergency. South Africa has not been different, particularly regarding the schooling of our children.

Notwithstanding barriers, the interventions that the Department of Basic Education (DBE) has effected to mitigate the impact of this virus on teaching and learning must be applauded. From the comfort of their homes, educational stakeholders such as teachers, parents and learners are able to access learning materials through their e-school portals and other online options. In addition, our public broadcaster has released its resources via virtual classrooms. Helping mainly the grade 12s, the Free State education department, under which my school falls, has partnered with community radio stations so that learners can access lessons for most of their subjects.

Expanding the availability of the ICT infrastructure
In recent years, government made concerted efforts to expand access to information and communications technology (ICT) services. A case in point being the ambitious SA Connect project undertaken by the Zuma administration; although the project has since experienced serious setbacks. The DBE, together with the department of science and innovation, had intended to pilot a project in several provinces to assess the readiness of our schools to integrate ICT in their teaching and learning.

While I acknowledge that much has been done, my concern is that this virus has caught the teaching community off-guard in numerous unprecedented ways. We are simply not ready for the future. Other than interventions by the DBE and provincial education departments to support teaching and learning during these times, there is little news about how our schools facing multiple deprivation have responded to the virus.

Reflecting on my experiences as a township school teacher, I am not surprised at how things have unfolded. At one stage, our school could no longer accommodate all our learners in the hall for the award ceremony, so we deliberated alternatives. In the process, one of my colleagues suggested we consider live streaming. You would think we were watching a Trevor Noah show; the majority of those in attendance burst out laughing. To them, this couldn’t be considered normal in a township school context.

The idea fizzled because we think such advances are exclusive to certain schools and economic sectors. We see an anomaly in what should be normal and have entertained this poverty of thinking for so long that novelty has escaped our imaginations. Can we overcome this great divide? And if not – and should we continue with the teaching amid this crisis – how then are we going to deal with the normal crowding in many of our schools; thereby minimising the risk of contraction?

Cleanliness is another headache. In most of our schools, proper hygiene standards are non-existent. It’s a normal sight for most of our classrooms to remain filthy unless there is a special visit by some high-profile departmental officials. Particularly rife in the secondary schools, most of our learners do not see a need to keep their classrooms clean because they know their class teachers rarely supervise them to see to it that cleaning happens. I have heard teachers say ‘I am only paid to be here for seven hours; anything beyond that is none of my business’.

Let’s not forget basic communications technology. It is no surprise to me that the majority of my Accounting learners in our WhatsApp group have struggled to submit their academic work: data is simply too expensive. And it may be foreign to some, but owning a first-entry smartphone still is a far-fetched dream for many families in this country, as a 2018 study commissioned by International Research Development Centre has shown. Additionally, despite the willingness of the teachers to use digital tools for learning, some of our teachers still don’t know how to integrate ICT into teaching and learning.

The lockdown will also expose the relationship and communication dynamics at play between parents and schools. By this I mean, the existing relationship between the parents and schools—is it one characterised by mutual trust and respect or by mistrust and sabotage? Do parents feel the school has their best interests at heart? Are there clear communication lines between these two stakeholders—where the other can openly voice their concerns without fear of victimisation— or it’s the cat and a dog type of relationship? In my case, the way some of my learners’ parents have responded to our call to keep their children academically engaged is laudable. Our parents WhatsApp group has been populated with different tools:
· Information on which channels offer which subjects
· The times these will be shown
· How to homeschool and how to support their children psychologically

A way forward
To ensure the stability of township schools, and to support both learners and parents, we must consider the following:
1. Our schools need to establish deep financial reserves in order to respond to disasters. To achieve this, they will first have to maximise what they already have in their pockets and protect any extra grants they receive from donors and government.
2. Alumni trust funds should be established to ease any financial anxieties that exist within our schools.
3. More networking opportunities should be created through which schools can address issues such as how to draft convincing grant proposals to the corporate world. To achieve this, donors should be invited by the district offices to brief principals on the common mistakes they should avoid when they draft their proposals and what information should accompany their funding applications.
4. We also cannot ignore the corporate bias towards former Model C schools when it comes to sponsorships. In response, we need to encourage – while they are both in school and in the job market – our township and rural school learners to work towards serving on boards of companies so that it is easier to access these opportunities and invite corporate leaders who went through the township and rural schooling.

In crises also rise opportunities and I cannot think of a better time to explore what opportunities this pandemic presents to the basic education sector. But we can’t do it alone.

Lehlohonolo Mofokeng is an accounting teacher and the co-author of YOUR FIRST YEAR OF VARSITY.