After more than two years, the National State of Disaster has finally been lifted. In doing so, it provides South Africa with a chance to recover and realise a new normal. At the same time though, it also gives us an opportunity to look back on this difficult time.
Much has been said about the effects the Covid-19 pandemic and, consequently, the lockdown regulations have had on our country’s socio-economic conditions. Since the beginning of the pandemic, a concerning picture is clear to see:
– The economy has experienced a net decrease of 1.5%.
– Between the fourth quarters of 2020 and 2021, 369 000 more people lost their jobs and now join the line of almost 18 million South Africans who are not economically active.
– 46% of our entire population receives at least one form of a social grant from the state.
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Amongst all these developments, many of us have overlooked the turbulent period through which the education sector has gone and how it has impacted society’s most important members: our children.
One of the immediate consequences of the lockdown was that it initially suspended the school-feeding programme to approximately 483 000 learners in the Western Cape.
However, after consulting with the Department of Social Development, the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) became the only education department in the country to start a temporary, emergency feeding scheme and managed to distribute 1.2 millions meals to learners by mid-May 2020. This was non-negotiable; as a caring province, we had the moral obligation to these children who were quite literally starving.
Yet, in spite of the efforts by the WCED to ensure that hungry children had access to a nutritional meal during a period of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, there was strong opposition – and even a complaint to the police – against this programme.
The long-term implementation of the lockdown measures has had a significant effect on the education curriculum. After schools had to adapt and function online for the most part of 2020, eventually the regulations were relaxed to allow for in-person teaching.
But, due to social distancing still being mandated, it meant that schools could not teach learners at maximum capacity. Even when social distancing was decreased to 1 metre, only 12% of Western Cape schools could achieve full attendance which meant that students spent most of their time learning online from home.
However, given the socio-economic dynamics of our country, not all learners reaped the benefits of online learning as many do not even have access to internet or digital resources.
This is why the rotational learning schedule was instituted. Even though it ended before the State of Disaster was lifted, it did not take too long for the repercussions to be felt. When a National Income Dynamics Study (NIDS) survey was conducted in 2020, it showed that children attending no-fee schools were only taught at least half of what they were supposed to learn.
This is furthered by the fact that, according to Nic Spaull from Stellenbosch University, a Grade 2 child from 2019 possessed the same knowledge as a Grade 3 learner from June 2021.
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The culmination of these figures can be seen in the outcomes of last year’s systemic tests.
For languages and mathematics, it was found that 70% and 106% of the curriculum were lost, respectively. And this was translated in how learners performed in comparison to 2019’s results: For all the Grade 3s, 6s and 9s, there were decreases in overall passes and averages achieved. This has left the province, let alone the rest of the country, with an immense task of catching up in the years to come.
Whilst the pandemic displayed how state institutions are susceptible to sudden, negative externalities, the lifting of lockdown and the end of the National State of Disaster has now given the education sector a chance to get back to normal schooling.
With the budgeting for the past two financial years having been focused on the Covid-19 response, the WCED can now focus on building back better. Specifically, the infrastructure allocation for the department has increased by more than R800 million to a total of R2.55 billion – which means that we are in a better position to further support the 1.1 million learners and 42 000 staff members who use it.
As we rebuild and move into a new phase of recovery, we must admit that the pandemic and lockdown has made a lasting impact on our education system. In some instances, the pandemic has highlighted the work that still needs to be done but on the other hand it has also accelerated the fourth industrial revolution within the education system.
The pandemic forced the education system to explore new ways of teaching and learning especially. Thankfully, the Western Cape had been actively pursuing digital learning prior to Covid-19 and before other provinces did.
Currently, there are 1 290 schools connected to broadband whilst 249 schools are provided with subsidies for alternative connectivity options. This is why the Western Cape will be spending an additional R170 million on blended learning. Additionally, we can see the establishment of the UCT Online High School as an indication of how education is being changed and what it will likely represent in the future.
Even though there were many lessons learnt during the pandemic, which has also left a forever-changing climate, the Western Cape is now in a position to continue providing quality education to every learner in every classroom.