COVID-19: Did we ask the right questions when we re-opened our schools?

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The outbreak of COVID-19 brought life around the world to a near standstill with enormous economic consequences. The pandemic also had a devastating impact on global education.

In a matter of weeks, COVID-19 changed how students were educated, leading millions of learners into home-schooling situations. According to data released by UNESCO Institute for Statistics[1] in March, over 850 million children and youth – roughly half of the world’s student population – had to stay away from schools and universities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nationwide closures were in force in 162 countries, and it represented an unprecedented challenge for the global education sector.

South Africa was no exception. To contain the virus and ensure that students and staff were protected, Government took early steps to close schools across the country on 18 March, 12 days after the first COVID-19 case was reported. While academic institutions were racing to fill the void with distance learning solutions, the uncertain duration of the closures added a further complication to their efforts.

The pandemic highlighted the great digital divide that still exists in the 21st century. The socio-economic situation of students and their families is an aggravating factor. Many simply cannot afford a computer or the internet subscription fees, while others reside in areas that have unstable electricity (or reception), or live in conditions that are not conducive to teaching and learning.

The back-to-school debate

In May, as we neared the height of the pandemic in South Africa, Absa Group collaborated with the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) to prepare a report wherein several experts in the field of education reform were interviewed and requested to address two interlinked questions. Firstly, if schools did not reopen for all learners, how would we ensure that more learners were able to learn from home? Secondly, if the vast majority of learners could not learn at home, did that provide impetus for opening schools sooner rather than later?

The Report laid out the debate on these two critical questions; to contribute to public discussion about the crisis, and obtain a view on how the country was responding.

At the time, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) proposed a staggered resumption of schooling, focusing first on the return of Matrics and Grade 7s. Education Minister Angie Motshekga was quoted in the media saying that the basic education sector was “COVID-19 battle-hardened and ready.”

The proposal to stagger the resumption of schooling, was however met with polarized views.

Education expert Professor Jonathan Jansen expressed serious concerns about this proposal and questioned how teachers would cope with increased demands. Jansen called for the school year to be scrapped with learners being passed to the next grade, and a bridging curriculum for matrics who enter university in 2021. Several teacher unions opposed the DBE’s plan, with some justification, highlighting concerns that provincial education departments (PEDs) were not ready to implement the necessary safety precautions.

In stark contrast, Education expert Dr Nic Spaull pulled together global evidence on children and their vulnerability to the disease. He presented convincing data that children were less likely to acquire the infection than adults, nor die from or transmit the virus once infected. He contended that, given these facts, school should re-open and that closures did more harm than good.

Adverse consequences of school closures

Malnourishment in children was cited as another reason to re-open schools, as it affects more than one in four children under the age of five in this country. Closures meant that more than 9 million learners were not receiving daily meals; resulting in physical and mental stunting in the medium-to-long term. At the time, CDE established that the Western Cape was the only province where meals were still given to about a fifth of the learner population.

Minister Motshekga confirmed that only learners who go back to school from 1 June will receive school meals; this implied that many would continue to suffer nutritional deficits if they did not return.

The Report highlighted the fact raised by some experts that learning losses would almost certainly accumulate with detrimental long-term consequences, such as weaker education results; a loss in life earnings and diminished economic opportunities. It was felt that society as a whole would lose out on human capital and that inequality would deepen the longer schools remain closed.

Getting learners back to school

Based on a range of expert views gathered, the Report concluded that it was the right call to prioritise getting learners back to school, especially since the risk of infection and death for children was very low.

Yet, schooling could not resume in South Africa unless safety precautions were provided to both learners and school staff.

A teacher’s union survey of 9,000 of South Africa’s 23,000 public schools found that two weeks before schools were meant to re-open, approximately “94% had not received hand sanitisers; 78% did not have access to soap and water; 99% had not received the delivery of sufficient masks for learners; and 92% did not have the necessary material for cleaning and disinfecting surfaces during the day”[2]. CDE urged that the DBE urgently address these issues, especially as SADTU called for teachers to not return to work unless these precautions were adhered to.

For all the grades not returning to schools, and where schools could not reopen (or where they had to close due to an outbreak of COVID-19 among learners and/or teachers), it was essential to ensure that learning continued for as many lesser fortunate and vulnerable learners as possible.

Very little was done to this effect by the DBE and most PEDs. More affluent learners were able to continue learning from home, but they were in the minority. In Spaull’s estimation, “for the poorest 80% of learners in SA, there was virtually no curricular learning taking place during lockdown.”

The challenge to keep learners learning   

A sometimes controversial solution to the problem of a lack of learning during the lockdown was one that some tertiary institutions and private schools adopted, namely online learning. The question was raised whether it was feasible to shift teaching and learning online for schoolchildren? And if so, to what extent?

Most experts around the globe agree that blended learning, a combination of traditional learning methods and online education, could be a productive and effective approach to learning. It could also help with the limitations of teachers and reduce costs for schools. But despite its potential benefits, the experts’ consensus view was that online or digital learning was not a feasible option for the majority of children in South Africa, most of whom lack access to the internet and/or data.

In responding to COVID-19, the World Bank’s approach[3] was to ensure that all children and youth had access to a quality education. The Bank advised lower- and middle-income countries to prepare multi-modal responses, capitalizing on existing infrastructure and utilizing a combination of different learning mediums to ensure students remain engaged and learning.

Education expert Nick Taylor said that while getting kids back into school was a priority, interim learning methods were just as urgent. Taylor recommended print as the most useful channel for providing learners with study materials. This, along with simple guidelines as well as suggested timetables to learners, and wherever possible and necessary, school meals.

The CDE Report concluded that digital learning is clearly not a panacea given South Africa’s great digital divide and pressing socio-economic realities. Taking these challenges into account, some experts viewed supplementary forms of learning, such as radio, as the best alternative.

The drive for better education has to start now

UN Secretary General António Guterres recently delivered a keynote speech virtually during a webinar hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, where he likened COVID-19 to an X-Ray; revealing fractures in the fragile skeleton of the societies we have built.

Research has found that the deepest traumas surface only after they had ended. The full scope of the human and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will not be known for some time … and the impact on our lives and our communities will likely be felt for years and generations to come.

It is critical therefore that we use this crisis to re-energise a broader drive to reform the education system. CDE agreed with a World Bank report published in May on policy responses to the COVID-19 shock, stating that “the drive for better education must start now.”

While online education processes, practices, and pedagogies are set to increase, adapt, and improve around the world, some experts argued that this should be seen as an opportunity for South Africa to devote resources to using these modalities more effectively.

The fundamental challenge in South Africa however remains that the education system currently performs at a very low level, which was apparent long before the pandemic. Providing a child with a laptop or tablet and giving them access to data does not provide a solution to the educational challenges faced by learners in South Africa today.

Unless we address the fundamental causes of this underperformance, any attempt to add online teaching methods into the mix will inevitably fail.

Article based on a Report by the Centre for Development and Enterprise

Click here to download the Report, or visit

This Report was made possible with funding from Absa Group. The funders do not necessarily agree with the views expressed.