The announcement by the president to close schools was a political decision and it should not have come to this. If the ministry of education had been decisive from the beginning and really took to heart the science of the matter and the complexity of our society, it would have played a wait-and-see game. Instead it sent our children to school and then changed its mind, which has been enormously disruptive for all concerned.
Now that it is being decisive, the infection rate is spiking. And with it, of course, people’s fears for their children and teachers’ fears for their lives and their families have collided.
The department of basic education is learning the hard way that unions, when they have to protect their members, will step into their power. The disruption to the system could have been avoided if the minister was less set on saving an academic year and a matric exam; and more able to hear what principals, trade unions and ordinary teachers were saying to her; rather than the political noise.
The crisis has also laid bare the inequalities in our schools. Some schools could adapt to an online situation or try to make up the work. Other schools just couldn’t because they have an infrastructural backlog, apart from having no access to any kind of digital platforms.
Even developed countries such as Canada put the academic year on hold for primary and high school children and used the time to be innovative about education, thereby sparking a completely different conversation on how we educate our children and why we educate our children. What do we want them to be in the world? Not just as individuals, but as a society?
We had this window too.
The principles of the kind of society that we want were established in the first few weeks of lockdown as communities came together and established local networks of social support. The Community Action Networks across the City of Cape Town, and similar initiatives across the country, confirm that the South African legacy of social activism and community response in times of crises, remain deep in our collective veins. The moment to harness those spontaneous expressions of cohesion and a true social compact between civil society and the State, is now.
Fatigue and frustration have set in, however. And I don’t know if we are as able to spark that conversation as we were four months ago. I feel as if we have missed the boat with innovation in this period.
I remember, and many of my contemporaries will too, losing a year of schooling in 1985 at the height of unrest in our townships. Teachers banded together when the schools were closed in September 1985 and went on teaching in people’s garages and in church halls. Schooling continued. This is not the same type of situation because the virus requires physical distancing; but there was a community uprising then that saved the academic year — there was innovation.
People came together.
Communities should be getting involved to assist parents in ensuring children’s safety and the continuation of learning.
But the state has, ironically, failed to truly partner with communities and civil society. I do understand the government’s view that in a crisis situation, it is harder to get poorer children and girls to return to school. I get that our public school system is a lifeline for many children. I get that this is a deadly virus with no cure. I also don’t think that losing half a year’s schooling is necessarily a total loss — we can catch up. Children will learn. They don’t need a brick structure to learn, but they do need innovative solutions.
There is a role for non-governmental organisations, community halls, churches and the department of education to come up with other ways of keeping children fed and safe while their parents are at work, rather than herding them into classrooms with teachers who are over 55 years and living with comorbidities.
The fears about the economy are well founded; but this is also an opportunity to refashion an equitable economy — as President Ramaphosa has said — so that in moments of crisis people don’t run out of food and there is a social safety net for every single person.
The fears of a five to seven-year economic downturn are real, but if we continue to do things in the same way as we have done for the past 25 years, we will end up in the same place.
This is truly a trial-and-error kind of situation. We have never been here. No government has been in this position; to respond to a global event of this extent.
We can’t save much right now and yet, there are plenty of alternatives. As education theorist Salim Vally notes: an unjust world is not inevitable. And yet the pandemic may signal an end to an unjust education system which continues more than 25 year after the end of apartheid.
All we can do is mitigate against the destruction. The moment for innovation and restructuring is here. We have to feel our way through this collectively and acknowledge there are mistakes. All we can do is move forward.
Helga Jansen-Daugbjerg is the Activate Change Drivers programme lead for the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) graduate attributes programme.