We must be bold but realistic and recalibrate all of our operations to respond to government’s call to action
This is a time for collective action and solidarity, for education leaders to collaborate across sectors and, as our first priority, to flatten the curve of infection while ensuring comprehensive care for the 12 million children who are not in school.
And we have to think creatively about how to minimise the loss of education time for the poorest of pupils.
Our energies must be spent on community education.
Then citizens, social formations and government need to work together and urgently consider the damaging impact of this unprecedented school closure so that we can take mitigating steps in an integrated way to maximise limited resources.
We need to face the reality that schools may close for a longer period than envisaged, and we need to think differently about how we mobilise society in support of the wellbeing of children and families.
Teachers’ unions are key, as are community and faith-based organisations.
The process of collaborating to understand the scale of the challenge and to find solutions must begin immediately with the aim of bringing government a set of implementable interventions that have been widely consulted on with the sectors that have indicated a readiness to support.
Time is of the essence.
As government attempts to stop an explosive increase in Covid-19 coronavirus infections, it has taken the extraordinary but necessary measure to reinforce social distancing by closing all schools until April 14, a critical and correct move.
With President Cyril Ramaphosa's subsequent announcement of a national lockdown until April 16, schools will not be able to reopen on April 14.
Simulations show that firm action can curb a runaway trajectory and, internationally, school closure is best practice in achieving this.
Read: Basic education department issues guidelines on how to deal with Covid-19 in schools
But it is not certain that schools will return in April because the progression of the virus is unknown.
If schools return in April, there must be focus on public health education for all children.
If schools do not reopen in April, what mechanisms can be put in place to support learning, to mitigate the loss of school feeding for the poor, to maintain a sense of routine and purpose for young people, to structure interim goals, reduce anxiety, and provide a sense of purpose and hope?
The closure of schools will exacerbate our already high levels of educational inequality and will be the most devastating in the poorest communities, which already have the highest school drop-out rates and the greatest challenges in education performance.
There are also fewer opportunities for learning at home – and family and community resilience in terms of the economic impact of the pandemic.
If there is one global lesson from Covid-19, it is that the wellbeing of the poorest directly impacts all, and sustained care for the most marginalised is necessary for the good of all.
Collectively, we have to consider steps to mitigate the potentially disastrous impact of loss of learning on our socioeconomic inequalities.
Let’s get the education issues on the table so that we plan realistically.
The first preoccupation in the public discourse has been how to use information technology to increase access to relevant learning materials.
Much has been made of rapidly extending online learning platforms and the marketing of these has ballooned, with some material being made available at no cost.
In countries where the infrastructure is available to all, this may be a viable option and is already being implemented creatively.
But these opportunities are skewed towards those with access to resources such as computers, tablets and cellphones, affordable data, and domestic and community spaces for learning.
In the South African context, such resources are not available to the majority of families, nor are the majority of families and communities familiar with this learning medium.
Our urgent conversation must consider how to make existing and scalable online resources available across the country in cost-effective and accessible ways – especially for older pupils who can learn more independently.
But learning is more than making material available. Pupils need access to materials, but also to an interface of support.
Effective learning in out-of-school programmes requires monitoring and the effective mediation of the content.
The need for this varies depending on the age, maturity, ability and confidence of the pupil. Assistance is required when pupils get stuck.
For working class and work-seeking families, the time required to do this effectively is a scarce resource.
How can communities organise online learning circles for older pupils and structured daily activities for younger pupils?
We must be bold but realistic. Even where material and support is available, education time will be lost.
Foundational skills and knowledge that have not yet been mastered can fade if not reinforced.
Our curriculum structures content relative to the conceptual progression of the field, the cognitive levels of pupils and the time available.
Loss of time has cumulative effects on what can be covered subsequently.
But it is not certain that schools will return in April because the progression of the virus is unknown. If schools return in April, there must be focus on public health education for all children.
Any out-of-school online or offline programmes implemented by families or communities will require that, when schools return, teachers are able to bring the disparate threads of learning into the shared learning plan of the classroom, and into a fair assessment of a pupil’s readiness to progress to the next grade.
A prolonged period of school closure will have implications for assessment and progression, and may require curriculum adjustments in subsequent grades.
There may be flexibility for assessments set collaboratively within schools, but for external assessments such as the National Senior Certificate, the loss of time will have serious implications, with possible knock-on effects in higher education.
More than just classrooms
But closing schools is more than stopping classroom teaching.
Schools play a valuable function of care and support, and of social and emotional development in structured social settings with peers and significant adults, as well as the broad range of learnings within these relationships.
Schools provide structure and purpose, as well as multiple daily and weekly goals and personal accountability to these goals.
Additionally, for 9 million pupils, schools are places where a meal is provided from Monday to Friday during school terms.
Our first goal must be to educate and inform so that we help stop the spread of the virus.
Our educational resources can be a powerful force to assist the country.
Teachers and educational NGOs can bring their energy and knowledge to community health activism by leading programmes to reduce the risk of the spread of the virus – but may first need to be assisted with their own anxieties and be empowered with key information.
They can begin by acquiring intelligence about local levels of school and community awareness, perceptions and beliefs.
Then we need an inclusive process of thinking through viable and realistic alternatives that will provide communities with a framework to respond to the care and support of pupils.
Leadership is key in providing a framework for local action that is realistic, implementable, is not “magical thinking”, and can be championed and driven at local level.
We must be bold but realistic. Even where material and support is available, education time will be lost. Foundational skills and knowledge that have not yet been mastered can fade if not reinforced.
Leaders across sectors must come together urgently to think through this framework, learn from best practice and develop a framework for learning, care and support that will be driven by the energies of local communities.
The SA Democratic Teachers’ Union in KwaZulu-Natal has already communicated with all of its members and appealed to them to help educate members of the communities where they stay about this virus and how community members can protect themselves.
The SA Council of Churches and other structures coordinating faith communities are important. The SACC is discussing this during a meeting.
The National Association of Social Change Entities in Education is key and is joining the conversation. Business is exploring how it can help – including providing think-tank opportunities using their online platforms for people to gather.
The DG Murray Trust has called for zero-rating of data for learning.
This is an opportunity for national solidarity and action – we can develop implementable ideas to offer government and communities.
We must recalibrate all of our operations to respond to government’s call to action.
Let us start the conversation and get the education Covid-19 war room in place.
Metcalfe is a professor and an education specialist
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