School of Education

UKZN Academics in US Radio debate on Education during Coronavirus Pandemic

From left: Dr Zanele Dube-Xaba, Dr Eugene Machimana, Dr Angela James, Dr Anissa McNeil, Dr Bronwynne Anderson and Dr Zanele Ndlovu.
From left: Dr Zanele Dube-Xaba, Dr Eugene Machimana, Dr Angela James, Dr Anissa McNeil, Dr Bronwynne Anderson and Dr Zanele Ndlovu.

The re-opening of schools, e-learning and student trauma during the COVID-19 lockdowns were discussed by academics – including several from UKZN – during an interview on the More Radio Network in Los Angeles in the United States.

Four academics attached to UKZN’s School of Education, representatives from the University of Pretoria, and educators from Brazil, the United States, South Africa, Ghana, Uganda and Tanzania took apart in the radio debate chaired by Dr Anissa McNeil.

The guest panel represented all levels of education and included private and government school representatives.

More than 20 000 listeners tuned in for the live broadcast which McNeil introduced by saying there had been enormous interest in the broadcast with educators world-wide responding to the education inequities suffered by the vulnerable and the poor.

She said a heartfelt concern of educators was: ‘Please ensure our young people are safe when they return to school.

‘COVID-19 has highlighted inequities in school resources at a fundamental level – the safety of children. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, safety and security are the priorities and not only has COVID-19 revealed the inequality of school resources and facilities it has also uncovered inequity in the provision of knowledge and learning,’ said McNeil.

In the context of educators worldwide preparing to welcome students back to a safe and welcoming environment, topics debated were the re-opening of Schools, the use of e-Learning and the trauma experienced by students during COVID-19.

A participant, UKZN lecturer in Tourism Education Dr Zanele Dube-Xaba, commented: ‘It was a good moment to share experiences with colleagues from other countries. My take is that remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic has not only exposed inequalities in the South African schooling system but has also exacerbated and legitimised them. I say this because in most underprivileged schools there has been no teaching and learning taking place due to the lack of resources and know how. Returning to school will be a complex situation especially with issues of social distancing in a context where learners are sharing textbooks and an inadequate number of teachers in specialised subjects. Reopening schools should ensure that the core of schooling – teaching and learning – is not changed to babysitting learners.’

Said Dr Zanele Ngcobo of UKZN’s School of Education: ‘The Department of Education COVID-19 sector plan articulates the phasing in of learners but does not articulate how the teaching will take place. I am in agreement with Dr Dube-Xaba that online learning has exposed the vast inequalities in our education system, even with the phasing in of learners. The inequality will continue because while learners in one grade will spread across different classrooms, it is not clear how they will be taught with the shortage of LTMS and teachers we have in our schools. The question that lingers in my mind is are we resuming schooling for the purpose of ensuring that effective teaching and learning takes place or to tick the box that the curriculum is covered?’ 

Said Dr Bronwynne Anderson of UKZN’s School of Education:  ‘It was an exciting experience to engage with academics from USA, Brazil, Africa and UKZN in the talk show. Due to COVID -19 we have come to learn how common our challenges are, particularly as they relate to education and the various issues we face in the reopening of schools.  It is apparent that the similarities as they pertain to privileged and disadvantaged schools are pervasive, thereby either creating smooth reopening of schools or huge challenges. It became evident in the discussion that privileged /private schools encountered a smoother transition when reopening as they are in a better position to comply with regulations such as the acquisition of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), social distancing and sanitising of learners, teachers and classrooms due to the smaller numbers and hence control being more manageable. However, public schools face enormous risks as they rely on government to provide PPE, and the large classes make social distancing, sanitising and control of learners hugely problematic.

In addition, the traumatic impact of COVID-19 would require learners to access psychological and emotional counselling upon returning to school, which is not readily available in most public schools. Many indigent learners rely on feeding schemes for a wholesome meal in public schools and this is not possible when schools are closed – this dire situation compels parents to send their children to school to ensure they get a meal. It is these and many other factors that highlight the extreme levels of inequality in South Africa and elsewhere that impact on the ways in which teaching and learning are experienced. However, despite these and many other reasons why most of our schools are not ready to reopen, the process is going ahead. This begs the question: What matters most? The lives of our children or the determined attempt to get learners back to school and to resume learning under “abnormal” and detrimental conditions?’

Dr Angela James of UKZN’s School of Education said: ‘In the South African context, the urgency for learners to return to school raises many issues, including the importance of education versus schooling, timing and the in service work with students and communities. We have diverse schooling contexts ranging from the infra-structure to the quality of teaching, and the availability of resources etc. In many schools effective teaching and learning does not take place, as teachers are not actively present and working with the learners in the classroom. Learners are sitting on their own with very little work to do, much of which entails recall and copying information from the board or they spend time ambling around the grounds and the classroom itself. The focus on learners learning is not emphasised nor actioned on, effectively. During these COVID-19 times, even though they are intense, many learners have the time and “freedom” to think and be. I do think that we do not give learners credit in that they are intuitive, can be creative and develop a greater understanding of who they are and what they are about – freedom to have an experience of a difference. The timing of the return to school requires greater unpacking and intense planning for all stakeholders. Learners returning to school before we have reached our spike is really risky and unacceptable. The spike is expected in August/ September and therefore the safety of our school community and their families is at risk. While all the safety measures may be prepared at a school, there are no guarantees of absolute safety and no infection. We do need to look at what is possible in the communities, after the spike where our students may be of service, through Service-Learning. Much work will be required in the Early Childhood Centres in the communities, educating the learners about healthy living. Students can design healthy living programmes in collaboration with the teachers and community persons for relevant, practical ideas that can be implemented in the community.’

Dr Eugene Machimana of the University of Pretoria commented:  ‘COVID-19 has further exposed the inequalities that exist across various social aspects in South Africa, including education. The negative impact of COVID-19 is compounded by the fact that South Africa is among the most unequal countries in the world in comparison with others such as Brazil and China. Some private schools only closed for a week when the lockdown started, shortly after that they resumed with online teaching and learning. This is yet another indicator of the social divide between lower and the upper class. Typically, learners from the lower class are left behind as the public schools were closed. Moreover, many poor learners do not have the resources, such as laptops, required for online learning, never mind the knowledge.’


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