The problem with South African children learning online

Only a minority of South African schools have been able to work digitally, and even these schools have faced challenges in the execution of this.

This is according to education expert Professor Mary Metcalfe, who explained that about 20% of South Africans have a computer at home – and in rural areas this decreases to about 9%.

Additionally, she explained that only in the wealthiest 5% of South African schools do 90% of learners have access to a PC and the Internet at home – while this drops to 50% in the wealthiest 25% of schools.

With the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown taking place in South Africa – forcing schools to close and children to learn from home – “pre-existing inequities are exacerbated by the epidemic and special steps need to be taken to support those disadvantaged”, said Metcalfe.

The principal of a quintile five high school told MyBroadband that even affluent schools are not immune to struggles relating to distance learning.

“I think what people don’t get is that even at the affluent schools there is a fairly large percentage of learners who come from poorer homes, what people would classify as quintile one, two, or three,” the principal said.

“They don’t have lots of money and they don’t necessarily have a computer at home, so we have to use technologies that are acceptable to them as well. We can’t cut out a portion of our population at school.”

The principal added that many teachers have also struggled to transition to online learning.

“For many of the staff members it has been an extremely complicated move to technology-based education, because we are used to standing in front of a classroom and teaching – we’re not used to a lecturing style where there isn’t as much rapport.”

They said that some subjects are particularly difficult to each via online learning – particularly if teachers haven’t had extensive training.

“The staff found it very difficult to learn the technology while they had to actually use it, it wasn’t a case where we had a week of practising with the technology,” said the principal.

“In many cases it is not a situation where you can just give learners work and have them carry on with it. We have to explain new work as well, and sometimes this needs to be visual – it’s very difficult to explain maths on a voice note, for example.”

Scrap the year

Education expert Professor Jonathan Jansen said last month that the consequences of reopening schools in South Africa will exacerbate inequalities further.

“To simply reopen as normal is to almost ensure that the rich get richer, if you know what I mean, and the poor get poorer. This is just wrong.”

He explained that rural schools often have 90 to 100 learners in a single classroom, and said he believes that this will make it essentially impossible to ensure social distancing when schools reopen.

Jansen instead suggested that schools pass all learners from Grade 1 to Grade 11 to the next grade, and then use 2021 to reorganise the curriculum to ensure that they cover all critical materials over a two-year period.

Matrics would use their preliminary acceptance results from Grade 11 if they wished to apply to universities, and universities and schools would work together to plan an appropriate curriculum for these matrics, he said.

Schools to return on 1 June

In response to Jansen’s suggestions, spokesperson for the Department of Basic Education (DBE) Elijah Mhlanga said it is too early to scrap the school year.

“It is actually laughable that this kind of suggestion would come from an academic who occupies a position such as his,” said Mhlanga.

The government then set a tentative date of 1 June for the return of Grade 7 and Grade 12 learners to schools.

Other learners will be allowed back to school in the weeks that follow, based on when it is deemed safe to add more learners to schools.

As part of this return, a variety of health precautions will need to be implemented, including the provision of protective equipment to all schools and learners, daily classroom sanitation, and daily learner screening.

Recently, however, it has come to light that deliveries of protective equipment have been delayed in various provinces.

Now read: South African schools reopening – The latest details

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The problem with South African children learning online