Despite the fear and anxiety that has affected all involved in education during the Covid-19 pandemic, an Education Conversation webinar on the psychosocial issues for education held recently heard stories of hope, solutions and a way forward during the pandemic.
The Education Conversation, an initiative presented by Kagiso Trust, the University of Johannesburg Faculty of Education, and Bridge, was attended by role players and stakeholders across all sectors of education. The webinar, guided by highly respected education academic Professor Kat Yassim, was a robust, constructive and necessary engagement that gave voice to many of the issues facing all in education at this time.
The lived experience of the rural child in attaining education is one that must be given urgent and careful attention, said Themba Mola, chief operating officer of the Kagiso Trust. “The mental, physical and social impact on the educational development of children in rural areas during this time is one that cannot be underestimated,” said Mola. “Kagiso Trust has seen through our programmes and projects how much assistance and guidance all involved in education need, from the child to the teachers. In rural areas this is much more intense because of the challenges rural schools face in terms of the distanced learning, connectivity and environment. We must keep an awareness of how each added challenge during this pandemic further adds another layer of concern for these children, and we must be innovative and forward-thinking with the solutions to these challenges.”
Khulile Qamata, the headmaster at Nyanga High School in the Eastern Cape, spoke of how his school was forging ahead with plans to improve on their incredible 95.5% matric pass rate from 2019 despite the time lost during lockdown and the current Covid-19 restrictions. The school improved from a 78.5% pass rate in 2016 to become one of most successful institutions in South Africa. Qamata wants a 100% pass rate this year.
Ensuring his learners’ mental wellbeing was looked after was as important as their physical health, said Qamata. The school was proactive before the first lockdown in March, not just in their ability to plan but also to improvise and adapt.
The re-opening of the school during the pandemic saw the community get involved: fumigating and cleaning the classrooms and hostel so they could re-open at the beginning of June. The school’s governing board bought their own Personal Protection Equipment (PPE – face shields, masks and hand sanitisers) in case there was a delivery problem from government departments.
“We formed a Covid-19 committee. We prepared by educating everyone in the school before lockdown so they could in turn educate the learners. But when we opened, we had 92 learners who tested positive and had to suspend tuition. We converted the hostel into an isolation site,” said Qamata.
The members of the Covid-19 committee stayed with the learners during the 14-days of isolation. The committee and the learners received medical as well as psychological help on coping techniques by a team from the Nelson Mandela Hospital Academic Hospital. The learners and teachers were taught about understanding stress and techniques in how to beat it – deep abdominal breathing, grounding techniques, mental visualisation and progressive muscle relaxation.
“We managed to open in 14 days with 100% recovery,” said Qamata. “We are continuing teaching techniques to understand and deal with stress, training educators to teach the learners. We had a special day for the matric learners because their year had been taken away from them. There was no matric dance, no sport, no career guidance. So, we had a special day for them. We got in a motivational speaker. We knew their needs went beyond just learning. We are improvising. It’s not easy.”
Peter Mahani is a project manager with the Thari Programme that works to support vulnerable women and children in schools in Botshabelo in the Free State and Diepsloot in Gauteng. One of its fundamental pillars is the creation of Safe Parks at schools, a pilot project by the Cyril Ramaphosa Foundation launched in 2017.
“Learners need to play and learn at the same time. Playing is not just for fun. It’s another way of socialising and inter-acting, testing their abilities in problem-solving. In the Safe Park we had educational activities, where learners were assisted with their homework as many had no assistance for this at home. During lockdown we had children telling us they miss the Safe Parks,” said Mahani.
The programme also helps co-ordinate the process for identifying and assisting children with problems, connecting teachers with youth workers and parents. It is not just the children who have been affected, but parents who are not trained to help with education at home, and who are struggling in this hard economy.
“During the lockdown, the service was badly affected. The child and youth care workers could not access the children, and vice versa. While Covid-19 affected different groups differently, the child is the most vulnerable. Some could not understand what is going on, could not absorb what was happening around them and could not deal with the challenges.”
Thari went to the communities to assess how it was affected. Phase one was a survey during home visits by youth and child workers. The findings were devastating. Parents said some children had joined gangs, some were abusing substances. They wanted the schools opened as soon as possible. Some learners were reluctant to go back to school because of social distancing fears.
“We reached 52 children who had issues, substance and physical abuse. Most learners were anxious about going back to school, about the virus and about having the time to learn and pass that year. Some thought it would be better to drop out and try again next year. We arranged briefing sessions with the schools and Grade 12 learners, brought in a mental health specialist and motivational speaker to help them prepare and come to grips with the situation,” said Mahani.
The webinar showed that pointing fingers, feeling overwhelmed and giving up was not a solution or an option. Remaining positive, showing leadership and care, and being vigilant of current and future psychosocial issues of all involved in education will give the hope to learners and the future of South Africa post-COVID-19.