22 April 2020 | Story Prof Thidziambi Phendla. | Photo Supplied
Prof Thidziambi Phendla.

The Hollywood movie, Contagion, acutely reminded me of the impact of COVID-19 on our education our education system. The many parallels between this movie and what is unfolding worldwide today in unbelievable. Nine years ago, who would have predicted that the world would find itself right in the middle of the plot and enacting the scenes in Contagion?

There is growing concern about our education system with many asking whether the school year is ruined.

For some it may be ruined and for others less so. Parents for disadvantaged communities do not have the means, knowledge and resources to support their children’s learning during the lockdown whereas those from more advantaged communities may access information on Department of Basic Education (DBE) and other websites to support home schooling during these times. For those who did not have these opportunities the loss of school time may thus have a much greater impact.

Embracing homeschooling
However, the school calendar year may equally be extended to early next year. In any event, we already have a system that allows for aggrotats, supplementary exams that runs into the new year, each year. The academic year can be aligned to close accommodate the lost time.

This is the right time for parents to embrace homeschooling of their children. UNESCO’s “COVID-19 Education response” provides a list of educational applications, platforms and resources aims to help parents, teachers, schools and school administrators facilitate student learning and provide psychosocial support during periods of school closure. Most of the solutions are free and many cater to multiple languages. The lists are categorised based on distance learning needs and most of them offer functionalities across multiple categories (https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse/solutions).

On the one hand, for the majority of learners and students in South Africa, especially from impoverished communities, distance learning will pose a great challenge. Majority of these communities have less access to digital devices and online solutions. The DBE should work with the SABC and consider opening a free 24 hours learning channel, as a platform to provide further support to distance learning and teaching. Radio remains the cheapest and most effective means for this

On the other hand, the situation is different with some private or IEB schools. Most learners from these schools are already trained to use distance learning platforms.  For example, during this lockdown, my 13year old niece starts her school day at 07:30 every day without fail. The school uses several strategies including the Microsoft Teams to support teaching and learning. Each learner has a laptop, completes home-work, assignments and write open book tests. In this scenario, at least 80% of efficient learning and teaching occurs. The difference between the two scenarios is a matter of inequalities, equity and poverty which still prevalent in South Africa.

An unequal school system
For many years the slogan was: “Liberation first then education” maybe it is time for “life and health first”. Even in the most difficult times people have found a way to learn – think of those on Robin Island in the apartheid years. We should imitate their example and not wait for the government to provide. Maybe libraries are an essential function that should remain open in these times.

Protracted student protests in South Africa over the past few years gave universities an opportunity to explore online education as an alternative to contact teaching and learning, and have put them in a better position to deal with current shutdowns necessitated by the need to contain COVID-19.

The pandemic exposed the glaring inequalities, equity and poverty that continues to exist, in particular, in education systems and country in general. Those who have the latitude to remain indoors and maintain the social distancing are the middle and upper classes of our society. These groups have access to data to support online educational programs, while the poor barely survive to put food on their tables.

For many years the world was expecting a virus that could spread globally (e.g. the swine flu) but nothing was done. With the myriad of challenges facing, including downgrading to a junk state, funds depleted through corruption at various levels, our country could not be at a worse position than now.

Lessons from the lockdown
One lessons from the lockdown has exposed the failures and shortcomings of not only our education system, but also the entire ecosystem. Huge inequalities still exist in education systems across the globe. Universities are grappling with a myriad of problems including teaching online.  The COVID-19 pandemic forced campuses to shut down and move many functions like graduation, examinations, conferences and other collaborations to the back. Another positive outcome of the pandemic is the sense of unity it created among political, cultural, religious and social organisations in South Africa and across the globe. Consequently, the most important lesson is that lives matter more than education.

As our president, Cyril Ramaphosa said, “We are currently in unchartered territory, which we have never had to navigate before”. It is therefore, very difficult to forecast the full degree of the short-, medium- or long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the education system. The longer the virus remains, the greater and more permanent changes may be. Certain things will probably change forever. Not only will our conception of going to office to work alter, but also our whole conceptualization of what a university is will change. We will probably see universities becoming more and virtual and operated from a highly decentralized basis. 


Prof Thidziambi Phendla is currently manager of Work Integrated Learning at the University of the Free State. She is the Founder and Director of Domestic Worker Advocacy Forum (DWAF); and The Study Clinic Surrogate Supervision; Chair of Council: Tshwane North TVET College (Ministerial appointment).

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