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Learning during COVID-19: Voices from the Field

Across the globe, the Coronavirus quietly and swiftly entered our lives. While no one can predict when the pandemic will be behind us, for now, it is here to stay. What began as a three-week lockdown period on 28th March to ‘flatten the curve’ resulted in nearly two months of school closures. However, on 8th June, the majority of South African schools reopened, welcoming Grades 7 and 12. The remaining students will return in phases with the last groups to return by 31 August.

The new normal: learners return to school wearing masks
The new normal: learners wear a mask, carry hand sanitisers, and socially distance

The Decision to Reopen Schools

When schools closed, learning completely stopped for many. Considering only 10% of South African households have direct access to the internet, pivoting to online learning was out of reach for most. Realistically, for the poorest 80% of learners in South Africa, no curricular learning was taking place during the lockdown. In addition, a recent study by education researcher Nic Spaul shows that South African children under 20 have an extremely low infection and fatality rate, on par with other international countries. 

The reconvening of schools was widely debated. But in the end, the Department of Basic Education felt that the potential negative socioeconomic impacts of students at home outweighed the potential health risks of the virus in classrooms, and decided to reopen schools.

Listening to our Khulani Schools 

The Trevor Noah Foundation’s Khulani Schools programme proudly invests in public schools for holistic development. We aim to empower our Khulani Schools so learners receive a good educational foundation, the tools, and support systems to emerge as resilient leaders post-matric. We currently support four schools, 250 teachers, and 6,000 learners in the Gauteng province.

As school leaders and learners returned back to classrooms in June, we checked in with our Khulani Schools to better understand their level of preparedness.

Principal Mofokeng describes reopening his school after 60 days as a ‘marvelous experience’, rating his school readiness preparations at 99%. He says PPE was delivered, classrooms were sanitized, and timetables were in order.

At Willow Crescent Secondary School, Grade 12 learners share their sentiments about their first days back.

“My first day was very amazing. I got to reunite with my friends again and see my teachers.” – Tamia, Grade 12, Willow Crescent Secondary School

“I was scared, and I did not know what to expect. I was thinking about all the negative things like maybe we were going to come out late and have a lot of work – tons of pressure – but it was actually fun.” – Bongekile, Grade 12, Willow Crescent Secondary School.

More Uncertainty Ahead

As South Africa approaches its COVID-19 peak, the Department of Basic Education, teachers unions, civil society, and academia once again engage in ongoing debates about whether school doors should remain open. While we have faith in our school leaders to prioritise their students’ health above all, we understand that this decision is not an easy one. 

In the past month, schools have opened and closed owing to infections, severely disrupting learning and teaching. While the future is uncertain, we will continue to amplify the voices and concerns of schools as they navigate this new normal.

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