The country’s basic education system is far from being back to normal, as rotational learning, lack of infrastructure and teachers working under challenging conditions all contribute to a backlog in learning and poor performance in schools.
While schools and teachers are trying to catch up on lost time due to the Covid-19 pandemic and work with limited resources while adhering to pandemic protocols, children have not returned to school full time and are still attending classes on a rotational basis.
This is due to space constraints which hinder the ability to ensure social distancing in the classrooms, said director at the Independent Institute of Education, Felicity Coughlan.
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It is easier for middle- and upper-class pupils to access schools which can accommodate social distancing, but education is not returning to normal, she said.
“Learning mathematics is another example. It is a cumulative process and missing a step has long-term consequences. If you are only at school three days out of five, or every second week, there is no consistency in the learning process.”
A teacher at a school in Johannesburg, who wished to remain anonymous, said despite the pandemic, they still faced the challenge of overcrowding.
“We do not have enough classes and the number of learners that we have is very high. As a result, social distancing is compromised,” he said.
Another teacher in Dieplsoot said two of her overcrowded classes, which had 56 and 75 learners each, were split into five groups of children. But the learner-to-teacher ratio at the school was not balanced, as there were more learners than teachers could handle, and not enough classrooms.
This resulted in learners missing out on hours and days of required learning, she said.
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“In our case, we have two grades attending per week. One grade attends two days and the other three days. You find that each grade has attended 12 days in a quarter rather than 50. When the learner returns two weeks later, you find that they couldn’t do the work at home as they had no one to help them understand it.
“As a teacher, it’s strenuous because we have annual teaching plans which indicate that we have to teach certain topics before assessing the learners. There isn’t sufficient space and time to assess them and cover the relevant topics. And as a teacher, you cannot afford to be sick and absent from work because then you have a lot of catching up to do,” she told The Citizen.
This lack of infrastructure and rotational learning creates a learning backlog and divides the teacher’s attention, said education expert Dr Sara Black.
“This then overworks and overburns teachers, as they cannot do what they are supposed to and have to cut corners.
“I don’t see any other solutions for teachers and students but to organise and press for a change. There is nothing else but to articulate the severity of the problem,” she said.
Department of Basic Education spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga conceded that the department faced many challenges due to rotational attendance.
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“Learning is delayed and teachers are struggling to make progress due to the lack of consistency in contact time. Teachers are complaining that learners are not doing well and parents are not supporting learners on the day the children are not scheduled to be in school,” he said.
Finding an adequate immediate solution is currently tricky as the country is still in a pandemic, Mhlanga said.
“The need to comply with safety procedures is still there. Best case scenario is having all learners back but as I said, it’s complicated because of the lack of space to accommodate all learners. Perhaps primary school learners could be an option as the impact of Covid-19 on the young children is not as severe,” he said.