Human lives matter more than education, but humans can still learn

There is growing concern about the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on our education system with many asking whether the school year is ruined.

For some it may be ruined and for others less so. Parents in disadvantaged communities do not have the means, knowledge and resources to support their children’s learning during the lockdown whereas those from more advantaged communities may access information on the department of basic education (DBE) and other websites to support homeschooling during these times. For those who did not have these opportunities the loss of school time may thus have a much greater effect.

The school calendar year, however, may be extended to early next year. In any event, we already have a system that allows for supplementary exams that run into the new year, each year. The academic year can be aligned to closely accommodate the lost time.

This is the right time for parents to embrace homeschooling of their children. Unesco’s Covid-19 Education response provides a list of educational applications, platforms and resources aimed to help parents, teachers, schools and school administrators facilitate student learning and provide psychosocial support during periods of school closure. Most of the solutions are free and many cater to multiple languages. The lists are categorised based on distance learning needs and most of them offer functionalities across multiple categories.

On the one hand, for the majority of learners and students in South Africa, especially from impoverished areas, distance learning will pose a great challenge. Most of these families have less access to digital devices and online solutions. The DBE should work with the SABC and consider branching out their current offering and open a free, 24-hour learning channel for all grades as a platform to provide further support to distance learning and teaching. Radio remains the cheapest and most effective means for this.


On the other hand, the situation is different with some private or Independent Examination Board (IEB) schools. Most learners from these schools are already trained to use distance learning platforms.  For example, during this lockdown, my 13-year-old niece starts her school day at 7.30am every day without fail. The school uses several strategies including Microsoft Teams to support teaching and learning. Each learner has a laptop, completes homework, assignments and writes open-book tests. In this scenario, at least 80% of efficient learning and teaching occurs. The difference between the two scenarios is a matter of inequalities, equity and poverty which are still prevalent in South Africa.

For many years the slogan was: “Liberation before education” maybe it is time for “Life and health before education”. Even in the most difficult times people have found a way to learn — think of those on Robben Island in the apartheid years. We should imitate their example and not wait for the government to provide. Libraries are an essential function that should remain open in these times.

Protracted student protests in South Africa over the past few years gave universities an opportunity to explore online education as an alternative to contact teaching and learning, which has put them in a better position to deal with current shutdowns necessitated by the need to contain Covid-19.

The pandemic has exposed the glaring inequalities and poverty that continue to exist in South Africa’s education system, in particular, and the country in general. Those who have the ability to remain indoors and maintain social distancing are the middle and upper classes of our society. These groups have access to data to support online educational programmes, while the poor are barely able to put food on their tables.

For many years the world was expecting a virus that could spread globally, such as swine flu, but nothing concrete was done. With the myriad problems facing South Africa, including the recent downgrading to junk status by ratings agencies and funds depleted through corruption at various levels, our country could not be in a worse position than now.

One lesson from the lockdown has exposed the failures and shortcomings of not only our education system, but the entire ecosystem. Huge inequalities still exist in education systems across the globe. Universities are grappling with a myriad problems including teaching online. Campuses were forced to shut down and postpone many functions such as graduation, examinations, conferences and other collaborations.

But a positive outcome of the pandemic is the sense of unity it has created among political, cultural, religious and social organisations in South Africa and across the globe. Consequently, the most important lesson is that lives matter more than education.

As President Cyril Ramaphosa said: “We are currently in uncharted territory, which we have never had to navigate before.” It is, therefore, very difficult to forecast the full degree of the short-, medium- or long-term effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the education system. The longer the virus remains, the greater and more permanent changes may be. Certain things will probably change forever. Not only will our conception of going to office to work alter, but also our whole conceptualisation of what a university is, will change. We will probably see universities becoming more and more virtual and operated from a highly decentralised base. 

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Thidziambi Phendla
Professor Thidziambi Phendla is currently manager of Work Integrated Learning at the University of the Free State. She is the Founder and Director of Domestic Worker Advocacy Forum (DWAF); and The Study Clinic Surrogate Supervision; Chair of Council: Tshwane North TVET College (ministerial appointment)

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