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Holistic Schools Development Mitigates COVID-19 Impacts

Steven Lebere

The COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact in 2020 on South Africa’s schooling system.  The forced closures of schools from the end of March to June, completely stopping teaching and learning.

Despite this, the matric class of 2020 proved resilient, achieving a 76.2% pass rate, a 5.1% decline from the 2019 results, which was less severe than Adopt-a-School had anticipated. A survey conducted by Adopt-a-School, exposed that 20 high schools suffered from the deep effects of the pandemic on learning and teaching.

Matric performance was analysed in 48 of Adopt-a-School’s programme schools and showed a decline by 6 % from 2019. Still, this is a pass rate of 80%. The quality of the passes in terms of qualification for university entrance, fortunately did not drop against 2019’s results, remaining consistent at 40%. 

Adopt-a-School is a partner entity of Cyril Ramaphosa Foundation, and implements a Whole School Development model in 446 schools. Since, its establishment in 2002, the Foundation has worked in over 600 schools across all nine provinces of South Africa.

The Adopt-a-School’s survey revealed some of the following practical effects of the pandemic on learning and teaching.  Teaching and learning time compromised time normally set for revision; educator workloads increased due to content having to be repeated to learners split into smaller classes; learners experienced difficulty in hearing teachers because of social distancing and the masks and face shields worn by teachers; absence of online devices and data, network challenges, and lack of skill in operating online devices.

Learners reported a loss of focus, depression, fatigue and increased pressure and anxiety as a result. Among subjects learners felt most unprepared for in the final examinations, were mathematics, mathematical literacy, accounting, life sciences and physical science. This is presumably because these subjects are done better in with contact teaching. Schools mitigated the impacts of the pandemic by making provision of notes, videos, online resources and assessments to learners via Whatsapp. They received training on ICT integration in teaching through the use of MS Teams training and Google suite training. Finally, teaching and learning resources that included easy to understand study and revision packs; and extra lessons during the week and at weekends.

The pandemic continues to expose the impact of South Africa’s inequalities on schooling, including in particular its digital divide. Learners from disadvantaged families demonstrably suffered most during the lockdown. Many learners, not only in rural settings but also in large urban areas, lack reliable, affordable internet access needed to aid learning. The pandemic has made online access to learning and teaching essential and urgent. Adopt-a-School has called on the business community to partner with it to provide learners and teachers in its programmes with data, devices and ICT training.

Adopt-a-School recommends that to overcome the challenges to learning and teaching, the sector should pay greater attention to more cost-effective offline content. Provide cost-effective e-learning platforms that offer better engagement between educators and learners and encourage study groups on e-learning platforms. Compliment the Department of Education’s curriculum by drafting catch up programmes for maths, maths literacy, accounting, life sciences and physical science. Lastly, offer psychosocial support for teachers and learners.

It is evident that internet access alone is not sufficient to support learning and teaching. The absence of such support for many is rooted in socio-economic conditions that require transformation. In the immediate, attention should be paid to how parents and caregivers may be supported. Parents and caregivers are a central and powerful educational partner. This partnership may ensure that even school closures cannot hinder the continued development of learners.

Year on year, from 2015 to 2019, the matric pass rate of schools supported by Adopt-a-School’s Whole School Development programme has successively improved, from 77% in 2015 to 86% in 2019.

Indeed, as an external review by Trialogue of Whole School Development implemented at IDC supported schools highlighted in 2018, 80% of respondents indicated that the matric average had significantly increased as a result of Adopt-a-School interventions.

The decline in the 2020, results is indicative of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is also of the efficacy of a holistic approach to education as implemented by Adopt-a-School. Whole School Development is an integrated and holistic model that addresses the development of effective leadership and management systems, infrastructure, educator skills, and improved learner well-being and safety.

The model's effectiveness is shown in particular in the Free State, where it is implemented by KST, a partner entity of Cyril Ramaphosa Foundation, Kagiso Trust and the Free State Department of Education. The Motheo and Fezile Dabi districts where the model is being implemented have consistently been among the top-performing districts nationally, including in 2020.

Against the backdrop of COVID-19 and an unequal and decidedly uncertain world, the future is here. 21st-century learning and teaching calls for the fast-tracking of digital skills and resources and efforts to overcome the digital divide and the other inequalities that impact education. Robust collaboration between Government, the private sector and non-profit organisations is how the holistic development of schools is possible as Adopt-a-School shows.

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