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20 April 2020
Time to reset schooling for the poor amidst COVID-19

(Published - 20 April 2020)

Research over the last 10 years on poverty and schooling, paints a stark picture amidst COVID-19. On average racial groups still perform according to the apartheid education trends and efforts to improve, equalise and sophisticate the schooling system did not change that trend in our country. Class sizes have increased to almost apartheid day levels, and money still talks as there are two public schooling systems – one for the poor and one for the rich.  Socially our society is thus under pressure to create and secure developmental opportunities for all. Learners from the middle class can navigate their way through the online platforms providing schooling support, keep abreast with information from schools, adapt when and where necessary, stay focussed and continue to work towards their aspirations.

The challenge lies with the 70-80 % of learners from poor school communities.  I suggest that this pandemic allows us to relook the schooling system and ask invasive questions and reimagine schooling to salvage some of the 2020 academic year as safely as possible. Some key considerations to attend to the COVID-19 schooling response should include the global plea that science must lead the way. In this case, it should include educational scientists and teachers. 

The curriculum timeline should be adapted to serve our learners the best we can. Crucial sections of the CAPS must be identified to ensure the fundamental knowledge aspects are covered. The Foundation and Intermediate phases can have classroom teaching to limit exposure within the school and time-tables can be adapted so that all learners don’t have breaks at the same time. Teaching and learning strategies should be adapted to fit the new normal.

Social distancing in schools is the major challenge, and there might be many models being touted at this point. I venture into this one with caution; knowing, it would not carry everybody’s endorsement. If schools do have to open, the principle of social distancing should be central. Schools can operate, but with fewer participants per day on-site when the pandemic curve indicates that it is safe enough to do so. I suggest that classes be halved and divided into two cohorts. Each cohort attends school every second day. In this way, social distancing in the classroom can happen, teachers can give a lot more individual attention, crowding is halved, and there is less anxiety.  

Closing schools for the rest of 2020 is not an option, as most learners in South Africa do not live in stable and safe home environments. Hunger, exposure to violence and the lure of crime to survive are all issues that are somehow mitigated by attending school. At school learners are fed daily and there is a structured programme, in an environment with purpose and ambitions. We might not think much of our current schooling system, but it does engage learners in their thousands in an organised way. Taking that away will leave many learners at the mercy of their challenging community environments. 

This view is only based on what we currently know about  COVID-19, our society and the schooling system. I am of the view, however, that we don’t have to be right all the time now, but we can be right most of the time.

Professor Rouaan Maarman is the Deputy Dean for Research and Postgraduate Studies at the University of the Western Cape’s (UWC) Education Faculty.