As the department of basic education struggles with when and how to reopen schools, we must remember that most of the world is equally at a loss. Almost all children in almost every country will have been directly affected by school closures. We can learn from other countries’ decisions in navigating this crisis, as well as their experiences of previous disease outbreaks, conflicts and natural disasters.
We have been conducting research on supporting social services to adapt to shocks in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. From this research, as well as studies on the effect of Ebola in West Africa, five lessons might help our policymakers prioritise their decisions.
First, students will forget a lot of what they have learned, and we are unlikely to be able to do much about it. After school holidays in Malawi, for example, a recent study found a decline in reading ability when children returned.
Unfortunately, successes in preventing this decline, especially when schools have closed because of a crisis, have been rare in other developing countries. South Africa is unlikely to be able to buck this trend.
Second, maintaining some kind of education programming, such as on television, is nonetheless important for helping children still feel “connected to education”, regardless of eventual learning outcomes. This benefits children’s mental health and increases the likelihood that they will return to class when schools reopen.
In Sierra Leone, investments in smaller organisations that already had the trust of parents and authorities were notably successful in sustaining such a connection during the Ebola outbreak.
Third, there is much more to schooling than learning. School closures and isolation have a negative effect on children’s physical and mental health. The threat is greatest for children in the poorest families, and especially girls, who are likely to be learning and eating less and are more exposed to high-risk behaviour than their wealthier peers.
There are also difficulties regarding child protection; family frustration and punishment skyrocketed in countries affected by the Ebola lockdowns. Researchers in this field recommend guidance and other support for parents to help to prevent this. This will be especially necessary if schools do not reopen in June.
With these considerations in mind, it will be particularly important to prepare for a “recovery phase” when schools do reopen. As Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga stressed in her recent address, this will need to focus on ensuring the physical and psychological well-being of families and teachers, as well as adapting teaching and learning.
In this regard, the fourth lesson we can learn from other countries is that it is not only teachers that will be understandably reluctant to return to class. We can expect the same from families. Sierra Leone and Liberia undertook concerted campaigns to reassure parents that re-enrolment would be safe. This will be necessary in South Africa too, and may require a more concerted effort than is currently planned.
Learning will initially be disrupted as teachers figure out how to manage the curriculum and their responsibilities with low and irregular attendance, and families still fearful.
Finally, although we expect that children will have forgotten much of what they have learned, there is still a chance that this loss can be quickly recovered. Well-designed “accelerated learning programmes” have been shown to be successful at reintegrating children, even in under-resourced post-conflict contexts.
Such programmes require focusing on the most important elements of the missed curriculum. In most countries, it has been delivered by community-based volunteers who have received a short induction and on-the-job training and support.
A detailed analysis would be necessary to see whether any adaptation of this would be feasible in South Africa, but lessons can be learned from the use of such programmes in Tanzania, Ghana, Uganda, Burundi, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
It would not be appropriate for education specialists to comment on the effect of reopening schools on the transmission of the virus — such decisions are best left to epidemiologists and public health specialists. Nonetheless, we need to think proactively about children and their learning.
When it comes to protecting our education system, the most promising opportunities may be in preparing for the recovery phase. Amid this uncertainty, we can still adapt the lessons from past experiences to build a more prepared and resilient education system.
David Jeffery and Shrochis Karki are education specialists at Oxford Policy Management, headquartered in the United Kingdom and with offices in Africa, Asia, Europe, the United States and Australia