Can we save the school year? Only if we all think very clever, ...

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Can we save the school year? Only if we all think very clever, say experts

Faced with different lockdown levels, outside-the-box thinking is desperately needed so learning can go on

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A teacher faces a packed classroom at a school in Mthatha.
Mass lit A teacher faces a packed classroom at a school in Mthatha.
Image: Sunday Times

The education department, teachers and parents are going to have to think outside the box if the country’s schoolgoing children are expected to continue learning during the Covid-19 pandemic that could stretch as far as 18 months.

With basic education minister Angie Motshekga set to announce plans on Tuesday on how the government will get millions of children back to school under the national lockdown from June, education experts say now is the time for “innovative thinking”.

Hamstringing government’s potential plans are different lockdown levels which could be implemented in different provinces.

The levels could vary from province to province depending on Covid-19 infections, deaths and recoveries.

The Sunday Times revealed at the weekend that more than 5,000 schools in Covid-19 hot spots across SA, including 929 private schools, will stay shut next month if the cabinet approves a new proposal by the basic education department.

The department wants schools in Cape Town, Buffalo City, Nelson Mandela Bay, Johannesburg, eThekwini and Ekurhuleni to be regarded as being on lockdown level 5 when others around the country begin reopening on June 1.

We cannot have a situation where we are mortified by fear and do nothing in terms of our children’s education until there is zero risk.

Keeping these schools shut would affect an estimated 3.7 million pupils and 134,779 teachers.

Free State University education faculty dean, Prof Loyiso Jita, said on Monday “innovative thinking” was needed to ensure children could carry on learning under lockdown.

“The country faces an unprecedented situation where a careful balance must be struck between ensuring the safety of learners and teachers, and ensuring that learning continues.”

He said the balance of risk had to be informed by medical science.

“We cannot have a situation where we are mortified by fear and do nothing in terms of our children’s education until there is zero risk.

“This virus will be around for a long time and for the foreseeable future we will never get to the point of zero risk.”

Jita said the main challenge that needed to be dealt with was the country’s national education system, which required all children to write the same exams irrespective of what or how much they had learnt.

This was a massive constraint to learning, “and means everyone currently has to stop learning”.

“We need to urgently relook at how children are taught.

“A solution, which must be seriously looked at, is that children from Grade R to Grade 11, who do not write external exams, are assessed on what they have learnt and not what they should have learnt in their school year.

“This would see children not being ‘punished’ by failing their grade and would provide teachers the opportunity to properly prepare catch-up lessons for them for their next year of school.”

Concerning matrics, Jita said there was no reason the way they were assessed could not be changed.

Given that matrics are examined on what they have learnt from Grade 10, a far fairer assessment could be done on what they have learnt through a reset of examination papers.

“Exam papers are set up to 18 months in advance, and yes, while it will be expensive to reset them, for the sake of their future and the psychological impact failing Grade 12 has on a pupil, it will be far less risky.

“Given that matrics are examined on what they have learnt from Grade 10, a far fairer assessment could be done on what they have learnt through a reset of examination papers.

“Universities could be roped in to assist matrics by developing intensive catch-up programmes which could be run between January and March 2021, which would help prepare them for their tertiary academic future.

“At the end of the day we want a situation where children can go to school and learn without the pressure of having to pass the full academic year at all costs.

“By thinking of only saving the academic year, we are missing out on the opportunity to develop new learning strategies which could help save the future of millions of our children.”

Stellenbosch University education expert, Prof Martin Gustafsson, said while things would be particularly difficult for Grade 12 pupils during this year’s examination, because of the contact time that had been lost, the performance in the these exams was heavily dependent on skills accumulated over several years, not only content.

“A loss of some curriculum content at this stage will have a relatively small impact on each student’s performance. Virtually all students would have experienced some disruption. This is unlike a situation where a natural disaster in one province affects the relative performance of students in just that province.”

What the department should be looking at was a special adjustment to the marks which took the pandemic into account.

“This is important to improve the comparability of qualifications across years. One would not want someone’s chances of entering a specific university programme being lowered just because that person happened to be from the class of 2020.

“There is a not a neat process where one year’s intake at a university is from one matric cohort. Universities must often screen youths coming from various Grade 12 cohorts at one time.”

The department has set up teams of curriculum specialists to trim the curriculum to minimise any damage.

Ebrahim Ansur, National Alliance of Independent Schools Associations secretary general, said independent schools had written to the department outlining proposals for how all matrics could return to school by June.

“The department has set up teams of curriculum specialists to trim the curriculum to minimise any damage. There would be continuous assessments with adjustments made to the assessment programme taking into account the fact that there will be no exams in June.”

Paul Colditz, chief executive of the Federation of Governing Bodies of SA Schools, said a snap survey they did of 3,700 members from governing bodies revealed that a third did not want schools to reopen yet.

“It is clear that there is much confusion and distortion of the reality in regards to the risks around children and Covid-19 infections.

“Before schools reopen the education department must ensure parents are made properly aware, from scientific and medical evidence, of the risks of infection to children and their risks of becoming transmitters.

“This is so that parents can make informed decisions.”

He said that if one took into consideration medical evidence that the virus would be around for at least two years, and if people’s opinions that schools should not be reopened were based on fear, it would mean that there would be no schooling for at least 18 months.

“It’s imperative that the education department embarks on education campaigns and looks at new ways of ensuring schooling can continue, be it through staggered classes or rotational learning programmes which would see smaller classes and fewer children at school at a time.

“Going forward there is no silver bullet to the current education situation. Given the diversity of communities the country’s schools are in, and the potential for different lockdown levels in different provinces and regions, the department will have to allow individual schools to set their own learning strategies.”

Colditz said schooling in hot spots would have to be different to schooling in safe areas.

“You cannot punish children who are in safe zones by not allowing them to return to school.”​ 

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