Closing down schools and having rotational attendance rosters were measures taken for short-term relief against the Covid-19 pandemic. Research by the Basic Education department is now showing that impact in lost teaching and learning will be long lasting - impacting on a generation of learners.
When the government took immediate action against the arrival of Covid-19 in South Africa in March 2020 there was little time to think of the long term impact. All attention was on 'flattening the curve' and avoiding a spike in medical emergencies that flooded local hospitals.
Now that the country is slowly emerging from the third wave of Covid-19 infections there has been time for some reflection, and formal research, into the measures taken to deal with Covid-19 and the unintended consequences of those actions.
It was clear early on in the Covid-19 pandemic that children were not as severely affected by this illness as older people. Although they can become infected with Covid-19 they are less likely become hospitalised or die from it than the elderly or those already ill from other conditions. However their teachers can catch the infection from them, and they can pass it to older relatives.
For this reason schools have been closed a numbers of times in the last 18 months and rotational attendance rosters have been put in place. At a Department of Basic Education Media briefing Professor Martin Gustafson presented their research which has shown that about 50% of the teaching year has been lost in 2021.
However the impact has been far worse as this has lead to an 80% loss in learning at schools. This is because learning happens in chunks that build on the work of previous days. Learners can forget the previous work if they are away from school for too long leading to wasted teaching time.
Professor Gustafsson believes that although it is difficult for this year's Matrics schools have made accommodations for them. The real challenge will be for the Matrics in ten years time as they have lost the crucial foundational learning.
One of the tools that educationalists use to measure learner progress is the 'Words Correct Per Minute' measure. Professor Gustafsson explained that this tool was used to monitor learners reading in isiZulu at Grade 3 level. The learners measured went from 23 words one year to 24 words the next - when they would normally be expected to rise to about 31 words per minute. "Reading progress came to a halt!" summarised the Professor.
What can we do about the problem?
Minister Angie Motshekga said her Department does have plans in place to address the challenge (She was reticent to call it a crisis). Funding for the re-introduction of teaching assistants programme has been approved by the Treasury - and they are considering extending this for more than the planned one-year.
This is intended to alleviate the admin burden that teachers face to give them more time for actual teaching. There is also more of a focus on pyscho-social support; and the DBE is working with the Department of Communications on various ICT measures that can be rolled out to support schools and teachers.
It is clear that the short term measures taken to address the spread of Covid-19 are going to have long term effects that could take a generation to repair.