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South Africa - Covid-19 and back -to-school

Back-to-school in the time of Covid-19 poses major challenges for South African teachers

Students have their hands sanitised as they return to the Melpark Primary School in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Students have their hands sanitised as they return to the Melpark Primary School in Johannesburg, South Africa. © AP - Denis Farrell

Secondary school teacher Nikiwe Ndlovu was looking to go back to school last month after lockdown in iLembe District, a rural area in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. She was attending a teacher’s meeting before the opening of the school when she contracted Covid-19.

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Ndlovu has health issues so she did not realize that she had the coronavirus until she tested positive, creating even more challenges as she tried to teach Technology, Life Orientation and Natural Science in grades 8-12 while living at home in isolation.

“It’s very difficult to teach on WhatsApp because some learners don’t even have phones-- they rely on their friends for sharing the activity I used to send,” she says, adding that network difficulties in the rural areas and students’ lack of data add to the mix.

Students are falling behind due to Covid-19, and educators are trying to pick up the slack in an effort to ensure students are safe and can continue their education.

UNESCO, the UN cultural agency, calls the pandemic the “biggest educational disruption in history”, and has set up a global campaign to help students, especially girls, get back to school.

Some teachers return

All eyes are on Philani Xaba, principal at Noodsberg Primary School in Tongaat at Bamshela near Durban, as he works on creating a safe space for students to learn, but what he says is with little help from the provincial government.

His school has 863 learners, and he is trying to create social distancing within sanitized classrooms, but only eight of his 27 teachers came back to school on 20 July. The others filed a comorbidities claim, which in South Africa means that you are vulnerable and susceptible to getting Covid-19 and cannot do your job.

Within a week, seven teachers tested positive for Covid-19. The government has not replaced them, he says, nor have they replaced the others on comorbidities leave.

“When we reopened the school, Covid-19 took over, because the teachers were sitting together in the staff rooms, meeting together during breaks, so it spread like fire,” he says. No students have contracted it.

The government has not replaced the teachers, he says, nor have they replaced the other seven off sick.

“I’ve utilized all the resources that I have,” says Xaba. “Even if you are an administrative person you are now in the classroom to occupy all the learners so they are not alone,” he adds.

And that is for the students who do come to school.

Fear means low attendance

According to their global monitoring of school closures, UNESCO noted that at the peak of the pandemic in April 2020, more than 1.5 billion students were affected by school closures around the world—more than 90 percent of the world’s young people in 200 countries.

“This is a crisis situation right now, and we also need to see that as a window of opportunity to really create new education systems that are gender responsive, that are inclusive, and are more resilient not just on this current situation but for future crises as well,” says Justine Sass, chief of section for education and inclusion on their “Building Back Equal” campaign.

Principal Xaba agrees.

“Parents are so scared to bring their learners to school,” he says, when they were informed of new South African government guidelines at parent meetings. “That’s why all of the schools, if you check the attendance, is so poor. I think it’s about at 30 percent or even less,” he says.

“In one of the meetings, a parent asked me, ‘have you all been screened and checked for Covid-19, as was said on the radio?’ And I told them that no, it was said, but we have not yet been tested. We just come in and are afraid,” he says.

At Ekukhanyeni Special needs school in the Pietermaritzburg area of KwaZulu-Natal Province, the attendance is even lower—at about 20 percent since the school opened last week, says teacher Thembi Nesemare.

“The majority of children, although they have disabilities, some have underlying conditions, too, like HIV/AIDS, epilepsy, and chronic chest infections. That’s why they haven’t brought those students to school,” she says.

“Continuity of learning hasn’t been very good for girls with disabilities, for children with disabilities; we need to ensure that there are inclusive measures,” says UNESCO education expert Sass, as educators in South Africa are doing their best under stressful conditions.

Part of the South Africa Department of Education guidelines includes the option to homeschool children if they are vulnerable. But where Nesemare teaches, there are additional socio-economic problems.

“The majority of parents who have children with disabilities in this community are illiterate,” she tells RFI, which makes it difficult for parents to help their children at home to get ahead at school.

Problems with masks

Part of daily education, especially in Nesimare’s school, is to remind the children that they need to socially distance, wash their hands and keep a mask on.

“We have a concern with children who are autistic, because some are very sensitive about material touching their face,” she says. “This is a matter that we have put forth to the department to assist with finding what other mechanism other than the mask can be used for a child with autism,” she says.

A student wearing a face mask and shield returns to the Melpark Primary School in Johannesburg, South Africa, 24 August 2020.
A student wearing a face mask and shield returns to the Melpark Primary School in Johannesburg, South Africa, 24 August 2020. © AP - Denis Farrell

Lack of cleaners and screeners

When the teachers and students do decide to come to school, they must go through a daily screening process, where a monitor takes their temperature and gives them alcohol gel as part of Covid-19 preventative measures.

In Xaba’s school, if half of the school comes in the morning, that’s 432 students. School starts at 8:00.

“How many screeners should there be?” asks Xaba. “There’s only one in our school. Which means that the school day begins late, because all these learners cannot enter the school without being screened, without forms being filled out, without being sanitized by the gate,” he says.

“We’re very concerned that this is going to be a crisis within a crisis, and special measures have to be taken for this context,” she says. “We can’t push children to go back into schools if the school situation isn’t going to be safe for them, or if the health measures are not going to be in place for their return,” says UNESCO’s Sass.

Special measures 

 The South Africa nationwide guidelines give the individual schools the opportunity to tailor the school year for their students, while maintaining social distancing.

Principals are given the choice of having half the students who make up a ‘Group A’ come in one week, while they stay home the next week and learners in ‘Group B’ arrive. Or Group A and Group B can alternate days—Group A on Monday, Group B on Tuesday, which is another option.

Xaba says he was worried about the students not having enough time with teachers, so his school has selected the third option: Group A, or half the school, comes in the morning, from 7:30-12, and then Group B, the other half, come in the afternoon. Each section learns the same thing, so their curriculum is cut in half for the 2020-2021 school year.

“We need to put an extra hour, more than the 7-hour school day, so that the second session can have the same time as the morning session,” he says.

A cleaner sprays disinfectant in a classroom to help reduce the spread of Covid-19 ahead of the reopening of Landulwazi Comprehensive School, east of Johannesburg, South Africa.
A cleaner sprays disinfectant in a classroom to help reduce the spread of Covid-19 ahead of the reopening of Landulwazi Comprehensive School, east of Johannesburg, South Africa. AP - Themba Hadebe

His school was not given mobile classrooms as promised, and while South Africa is still cold as it goes into Spring, he says it is too dusty in the Summer to hold classes outside, either.

“Our students are going to fall behind because when we came back to school they couldn’t provide enough classrooms for a Covid-19 situation,” he adds with a sigh.

RFI contacted the Education Department in eastern KwaZulu-Natal province, but they were not available for comment.

Teaching takes its toll

Although Ndlovu is still recovering from Covid-19 and is even isolated from her own children at home, she is trying to do as much as she can for her students, and creates packets of exercises and homework.

“When I send an activities packet to school, the principal brings the finished work for me to mark on the weekends and give the students feedback,” she says.

All these changes to the class format, timings and class sizes puts pressure on teachers, too.

Teaching while in isolation with Covid-19 under these circumstances has taken a toll on Ndlovu.

“The doctor said I must deal with the stress because he said that I am depressed, while pretending I am strong,” she says.

“I’m trying to be strong because I do not want the children to fall apart because of me,” she says, referring to both her students and her own children.

“I am so grateful that teachers worked hard to help the learners in attendance. Even though there are challenges, the teachers work tirelessly,” she says.

“In some of the schools, we did not even have fumigation, or deep cleaning in rural areas--you will find the teachers cleaning the schools for ourselves so the learners arrive in a safe place,” she adds.

It is also impossible to generalize how education is carried out South Africa in this time of pandemic, which varies according to the province, city, community, and school, says Nesemare, the special needs teacher.

“Our school is in an area where the parents are not working. Some have been told you can’t come back until we’re at Pandemic level 1, and we’re at level 2 right now,” she says.

“We’ve been on lockdown for five months. Some parents prefer sending kids to school where they will be able to eat instead of facing starvation-- those are the factors here,” she says.

Ndlovu is hoping to be well enough to physically go back to school in October to teach in person.

“My children at school really need me to be there for them,” she says.

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