/ 16 May 2020

Confronting inequality during the school closures

Breakthrough: The Makhanda high court judgment means no child can be denied a place in South Africa’s public schools.
File photo by Madelene Cronjé


Sizwe is a Grade 11 student in Khayelitsha, the largest township in Cape Town, and the first township in the Western Cape where Covid-19 was discovered. Sizwe’s mother has fortunately retained work during South Africa’s lockdown. That work, though, is in front-line services, exposing her to unforeseen risks. Sizwe worries about his mother’s health and the disease she might bring home.

His second worry, however, is schoolwork and the end-of-year exams he will be expected to sit in December. “I’m so scared we might even repeat all grades,” he explained over WhatsApp. No doubt the risk of an extra year of school fees was on his mind.

For the first two weeks of the lockdown, schools in South Africa were told to treat this period as an extended holiday, which they could make up through a reduction in holidays later in the year. This message, however, wasn’t received by students like Sizwe, who grew increasingly concerned that his school hadn’t contacted him about what he should do. To take matters into his own hands, he started teaching himself from a life sciences textbook he had taken home. But Sizwe didn’t know which parts to study, and even with a dictionary he couldn’t understand the complicated words in English, his second language.

Once the lockdown was extended by three weeks, Sizwe’s school did get in touch and began e-learning. They created WhatApp groups, focusing on just two subjects: life sciences and English. His class is studying last term’s work since they already have those textbooks. After reading, he does short exercises and discusses those exercises in WhatsApp groups. “It’s not the same as in the classroom,” notes Sizwe, in large part because “with everyone here in the house, I am studying at night.” Yet Sizwe is one of the fortunate students in South Africa, a country with record-breaking levels of economic inequality, immuno-compromising diseases and data costs. 

Schools in many parts of the world act as front-line support for vulnerable families. They offer social and psychological support and care, safe spaces, free meals, and can be the first to report abuse in the home. So what happens when schools temporarily shut down? And how are South African schools and students learning to cope? 

As high-school teachers and researchers from high-, middle-, and low- income schools in Cape Town, we discuss the challenges, opportunities, and learnings that this unique situation has presented in terms of access to e-learning, organising teachers and pedagogy. 

Access to e-learning

South Africa has one of the highest data costs in the world, making e-learning particularly prohibitive for schools that serve low-income families. One of our first challenges was discerning how many students could access a device and stable internet connection. For the lower-income schools, it was equally important to understand which students were likely to be facing food shortages at home. As students without internet struggled to take part in online surveys, and as contact addresses for parents were found to be out-of-date, days of work went into determining who required help.

The schools with sufficient social capital could fundraise at short notice to support e-learning. These schools bought data for students who required it and supermarket vouchers for families experiencing food shortages. Low-income schools, however, were unable to provide financial support, and instead relied on phoning vulnerable students to check on their safety. As one teacher explained, for some families, “it’s a choice between passing Grade 12 or surviving Covid-19”. As the lockdown progresses, and more parents suffer job losses, we expect that data shortages and a lack of access to food will prevent many students from continuing their learning. 

Organising teachers

The unprecedented nature of e-learning, particularly for older teachers, has required strong and coordinated school management in order to be successful. At one school, when teachers started sending work on different platforms, students soon became confused. Teachers then needed to backtrack to coordinate, resulting in lost time. The use of different platforms was also in part determined by students’ access to data. A choice at high-income schools has been Google Classroom, whereas schools with fewer resources are using WhatsApp, given the familiarity of the phone-based interface. 

In a case where students were deemed particularly at risk, online engagement has been organised so that each class teacher is responsible for all communication with their students. Subject teachers send material to the class teachers, who pass it on to students through a class WhatsApp group. The class teacher could therefore monitor who was accessing the material. 

Lastly, timetables needed to be adapted or even abandoned. Teachers who expected work to be done in real time, or who set tight deadlines, often faced scheduling clashes with other teachers. Their students also faced scheduling clashes with parents who needed access to the same device. A more successful approach was providing work at the beginning of the week which students could do in their own time. This approach was particularly helpful for families like Sizwe’s, where space to work was constrained and studying often had to happen at unusual hours. 

In general, e-learning seemed to work best if school leadership was able to engage in preparedness with the staff before the lockdown began. These discussions helped set new expectations for what e-learning would look like, rather than assuming that learning should meet the same expectations as before lockdown. 

Adapting pedagogy

Pedagogy (methods of teaching) was the area that required most creativity. Some subject departments reordered their usual curriculum so that they taught the content most suitable for an online medium. A poetry module was taught instead of Hamlet for example, since it was easier to convert poems into bite-size “chunks” rather than trying to address larger themes associated with a play or a novel.

In one school, the guidelines for how content should be taught were standardised across subjects. Teachers “dumped” the content with the students at the start of each week, and at the end of the week sent a follow-up video answering students’ questions and clarifying common mistakes. Using a programme called ‘Screencast-o-matic’ teachers spoke through PowerPoint presentations, and recorded their face on a webcam. Although successful in conveying information, the pedagogical approach was inevitably didactic, and the opportunity to explore ideas or scaffold learning was limited. 

Some teachers considered data limitations when interacting with their students. They did this by highlighting the “most useful” learning resources, and those that were not essential, or by tagging each upload with its size so that students could ration their downloads. One teacher set different tasks for students depending on their devices; an essay task was set as a Word document if you had a laptop, but a quiz assignment if you only had a phone since typing an essay on a phone is so challenging.

One of the difficulties with all these approaches was ascertaining whether the students were understanding, or even engaging with the material. WhatsApp proved more helpful than Google Classroom in this regard, since it showed who had read the messages, and teachers were able to follow up with a friendly check-in if  “attendance” was inconsistent. Some teachers also asked their students to send a funny selfie of them doing the work, again as a way of establishing accountability. One teacher requested a photograph of all the finished worksheets so she could mark them, while others relied on parents to ensure that the work was being done.

As lockdown continues, pedagogical considerations will need to be revisited. Eventually the poetry module will finish, and topics which require more debate and discussion will need to either be tackled or replaced.

Future opportunities

Our experiences are relatively privileged and do not represent the whole of South Africa, but there have been successes and learnings in our schools that will continue post-lockdown. It has been encouraging to see how quickly teachers have learned to use different platforms and have discovered through a process of trial and error what works. It is likely that as a result IT will be better integrated into our classrooms. 

In the absence of face-to-face interaction, there is also a growing awareness of when teaching really happens, and what the role of a teacher actually is. The most meaningful pedagogical moments come when we respond to our students’ thoughts and questions as they process what they’ve just learned, mentoring and fine-tuning their development. In a typical classroom these moments are often overtaken with the extensive content we are asked to deliver. But what if — like in lockdown — we started sending the lecture-style content over WhatsApp before the class? Students could watch it in their own time, and class would then be a time for activities and those more intimate interactions that characterise truly excellent teaching and learning. 

Equity implications

Some well-resourced schools have made the decision to only do as much e-learning as the student with the least access to e-learning could manage. This decision was out of deep concern for equity and the need to keep everyone together. Their communities and even some corporate entities rallied around them, raising the capacity of the most vulnerable to make this possible.

Yet even in “normal” times, many schools in South Africa do not have the basic resources required to learn effectively. Whereas Covid-19 has forced us to confront inequalities within our own schools, if we are true to the principle that we will only teach to the resource capacity of the least among us, then what implications does this have for our country as a whole?

Georgina Apples is the head of physical sciences at Spine Road High School in Cape Town, Brittany Nygaard is an English and history teacher at Bergvliet High School in Cape Town, Nicholas Kerswill is head of history and an English teacher at Claremont High School in Cape Town and Natasha Robinson is a PhD student at the University of Oxford in the UK.