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Pandemic hobbles learners’ futures

As parents hope to get their children back to school in the next few weeks, many, including experts and teachers, are concerned that the disruption caused by the pandemic will have long-lasting dire consequences.

The executive director of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa, Basil Manuel, told the Mail & Guardian that grade one should have been one of the classes to go back to school along with grade 12 because of how crucial the grade is. 

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“Get your foundation right; that is what we needed to do. You cannot push learners to grade two because the teachers will tell you that they cannot start teaching reading without a foundation of words,” he said.

“We warned them that this generation would be a generation of people who cannot read at all. If you think we have a problem with reading now, watch this space.”

Parents’ fears 

All the disruptions of 2020, coupled with existing inequalities in the schooling system, have led to some parents doubting whether their children should have progressed to the next grade. 

Aluwani Sadiki has three daughters in school, and they have all passed. Her daughters only attended one day of school per week. Although she is not particularly worried about her eldest, who will be starting grade 10 this year, and her second going to grade five, she shared her concerns about her youngest, who was progressed to grade two. 

Sadiki said she was confident that her youngest daughter did not remember the things she was taught the previous week when she went back to school again for one day the following week. 

She explained that when her daughters were at home, they had a mountain of homework to wade through. Her eldest could work independently but not her youngest. 

“I ended up doing the homework for her. I am not a teacher, and I do not know how to teach, so I would tell her what to write instead of teaching her,” she said. 

This is but one of the reasons she is concerned about the good marks in the report. 

“I feel that they just made the kids pass. I fear though that she will suffer when she progresses to senior grades because the foundation was not properly laid. In high school, for example, she will not be pushed, and it will be evident that she does not know anything.”

Another parent, Sindiswa Makheta, said her son, who is going to grade eight, has always struggled academically, and she worries that the disruptions in schooling will further exacerbate this. 

The 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy (Pirls) study, which tested reading comprehension of learners in their fourth year of primary schooling, found that 78% of South African learners at this level could not read for meaning.

Over the years, the department has launched several initiatives in primary school to mitigate this. 

Two years ago Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said her department would ensure that learners in early grades can learn to read and write.

“Although various factors are affecting high school children that may trigger dropping out of school, the evidence shows that the root cause … is inadequate learning foundations,” she said at the time.

Makheta believes her child might never regain what he has lost. She said her child is going to high school, but struggles to read and write.

“I don’t know how his schooling career is going to be as he advances to other grades, if at all, but definitely the thing of rotation and suspending schooling has impacted him a great deal,” she said.

Learners who cannot read

Teachers have been at the front line of the disruptions, and they too fear for the generation of learners they are producing under the pandemic. 

An Eastern Cape foundation phase teacher said she passed learners who still did not know how to write their names or read.

The teacher has a multigrade class of grade two and grade three learners. The two classes were scheduled to rotate attending school each week. She said when the learners returned to school after being off for a week, they would have forgotten much of what they were taught. 

“These are children that when you give them a book to read, not even an English book, but an isiXhosa book they cannot read it, they struggle. Children who cannot even spell. But we had to pass such children,” the teacher said. 

“We have been producing a generation of children who do not know how to write their names or read, and we cannot run away from that. A grade four teacher cannot still be expected to teach a child how to read and write when they have their own load of work to do. Some of these children cannot even write ‘mama’, and you cannot suddenly expect that they will know how to construct a sentence in grade four.”

An English high school teacher from the Free State said he did not teach his grade 10 learners essential grammar and poetry and could only read four chapters out of 10 in one prescribed novel.

“The topics that they did not cover are essential. If they did not do the work in grade 10, it means it is going to be hard for us teachers to teach them at the level of grade 11 because they will not understand the work.”

Though he believes that no one could be blamed, he foresaw “disaster” when these learners finally reach grade 12. 

“If the foundation is wrong, there is little that you can do in grade 12, which is the exit. The real foundation needs to be laid in grade 10. They need to grow understanding even how to analyse a character because, in grade 12, I cannot be saying, ‘What do you think of this character?’ In grade 12, you analyse, you are no longer asking who is doing this; it is about why. They did the bare minimum in grammar as well, so you are even looking at learners who cannot even construct a sentence at that level,” he said.

Long-term effects

The effects of the disruption caused by Covid-19 on learners in the basic education sector will be felt long after the virus has disappeared.

Schooling has been disrupted since March when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that schools would be closed to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Learners missed out on school months as the last batch of children only returned to school in August

Some schools were also delayed in opening due to a lack of personal protective equipment and not having adequate sanitation facilities or water. 

Because hundreds of schools are overcrowded, and to accommodate the new need for social distancing, the department of basic education allowed schools to use a rotation system for learners, except in grade 12. 

The dean of education at the University of Pretoria, Professor Chika Sehoole, said that the government had to ensure that it saves lives, but that has come at a cost. 

“There will be learning, knowledge and skills gaps in this generation of learners. We may not experience that now, next year or in two years. But in the next 10 or 15 years when this pandemic is over, we will be counting the costs of missed opportunities for learning, and that would be evident in the learning and skills gaps of future adults.”

When the pandemic is over the country needs to start reconstructing the education system and close the inequality gaps that have become more pronounced during the pandemic, he said. 

Time for reconstruction 

While others might see gloom, the South African Democratic Teachers Union’s general secretary, Mugwena Maluleke, believes that something good can come out of moments of disaster. 

Maluleke told the M&G that the country can still emerge with quality learners amid the disruptions.  

He said this could happen by focusing on the real building blocks in education by taking out the “useless things” in the curriculum that do not assist learners. 

“The curriculum is riddled with things that we have no use for, but we are not getting rid of them. We need to look at this thing and say Covid is a threat, but it is also an opportunity for us to say what are the real things that need to be taught. What are the building blocks that need to be taught?”

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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