JOHANNESBURG – The year 2020 will be remembered as the year schools had to face the harsh reality of possibly losing the entire academic year.
Government was forced to close schools in a bid to contain the surge in COVID-19 infections.
The spread of the virus saw the education sector divided on how to save the academic year during a pandemic.
While declaring the COVID-19 outbreak a national state of disaster, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced in March that all schools would be closed as the number of positive cases were rapidly rising.
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga then announced that schools would resume on the 14th of April so as to not lose too much teaching and learning time.
Sadtu’s Nomusa Cembi raised concerns over water and sanitation problems at many of the country’s schools – saying it could put thousands of pupils and teachers at risk of contracting the virus.
While Naptosa’s Basil Manuel made it clear that the union would not allow schooling to resume without proper systems in place.
Following public uproar and calls from unions for the education department to postpone the resumption of schooling, government announced that schools would reopen on the 1st of June in phases after an updated calendar of the academic year was gazetted.
But at the eleventh hour, Motshekga made an about-turn postponing the return of grades sevens and matrics by another week.
The department’s confusion left many parents fuming as some had already dropped off their children at boarding school hostels.
The minister apologised, citing a delay in the delivery of personal protective equipment in most provinces.
There was yet another set back after an expected peak in COVID-19 infections in the country in July, the president again shut down schools for a month, with the exception of matrics, who were expected back in their classrooms a week later.
Some unions proposed that schooling be postponed at least until the end of August, with Mmusi Maimane’s One South Africa movement even taking the department to court – but losing.
It remains to be seen how the matric class of 2020 will do in their finals after the COVID-19 outbreak and exam paper leaks.
SCHOOLING GOES ONLINE
The pandemic also forced the education sector to revisit its plans of investing in digital and online teaching and learning going into the future.
To save the 2020 academic calendar, both education departments implemented measures to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus.
Schools as well as universities made use of online learning to administer classes and catch up on lost time.
Following the closure of all schooling Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande announced that face-to-face classes would be moved online.
Nzimande said all public universities had developed detailed strategies for remote multi-teaching and learning and that his department would be providing poor students with laptops.
However, his department couldn’t deliver on its promise due to procurement issues, leaving many students who relied on online classes behind.
These NSFAS students will now only receive their laptops in March when the 2021 academic year starts.
However, Nzimande applauded the online and digital platforms used during the pandemic saying a number of South African universities reported better student performance in comparison to previous years.
Nzimande has since announced a ministerial task team to help the sector develop strategies to make online learning a reality, which will be set up this year.
Meanwhile, the basic education sector prepared support material in the form of online and broadcast classes to help pupils learn while at home.
Classes were held on the public broadcaster’s tv channels and radio station to help pupils while they were at home.
Some teachers got creative and created WhatsApp groups where learning material would be posted and discussed.
Motshekga acknowledged that unlike the higher education sector e-learning can never bridge the gap of face-to-face learning at schools.
She did, however, say it’s now become vital for the sector to relook at alternative learning methods so that schools can be less impacted by future closures.
With the pandemic looking set to be with us for some time, South Africa is still faced with problems such as high data costs and poor internet services in rural areas which could hamper the country’s readiness to move to e-learning.
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