Covid-19: Open Letter to Minister Angie Motshekga

Ten suggestions for the Minister of Basic Education to assist school children and teachers during and after the lockdown

Photo of Angie Motshekga

Dozens of signatories to this letter call for the Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga to take measures on nutrition and access to education. Photo from government website

14 April 2020

We are a group of concerned citizens and educational activists and South African leaders, with the support of the National Association for Social Change Entities (NASCEE).

We have heard Minister Motshekga’s interview on e.TV on 10 April, and understand that a Recovery Plan will be tabled to the Cabinet in the course of the week. We have seen a draft version of the Recovery Plan.

We applaud the intention to be flexible and to plan for all circumstances associated with the unknowns of the lockdown. We too are entirely focussed on the needs of every child in South Africa as we plan and reimagine the possible ways forward.

Ahead of the upcoming Cabinet meeting, we would like to raise the following concerns:

1. We appreciate that the Draft Recovery Plan acknowledges the traumatising experience which the lockdown is proving to be for the majority of South Africa’s learners and teachers. Children, in particular, are experiencing isolation, heightened anxiety, hunger and perhaps worse than ever levels of abuse or neglect. As a result, there are incredible additional demands placed on all at this time. Most teachers are trying with their own limited resources and tools, to engage and connect with their learners in an attempt to alleviate these circumstances. We request that these issues be held as a starting point to any recovery plan, rather than as a side element in the form of a separate “psychosocial support plan”.

2. We understand that stressed parents, educationalists, school and organisation leaders and, in most cases, learners themselves, are worried about the accumulating backlog in the coverage of the syllabus. We also recognise that there is some pressure to respond with a robust calendar and plans for exams. We anticipate that the time to provide a new calendar and test plans will come when we have more clarity about the further evolution of the pandemic in the country.

In thinking about a possible future calendar, we would welcome compassion and sensitivity towards teachers and learners. Short breaks during the school day, as well as between the terms, are of paramount importance for the brain to assimilate what it has been exposed to. In the interest of preserving the best possible quality of learning, we strongly advise in favour of keeping some (short) holidays. We are open to brainstorming creative approaches to keep the holidays as fruitful as possible, and to support local implementation of such approaches with the communities.

3. What we request from the DBE now is clarity and guidance that supports our children in the present moment and creates opportunities for all children to access

a. nutritious food,

b. “nurturing” activities, and, where possible

c. a safe space.

4. Regarding food, we understand that, during school closure, the primary responsibility for feeding the vulnerable has been transferred to the DSD. We believe, however, that when it comes to the specific needs of children of school-going age, the Education sector has many assets that could be made available. It has an infrastructure that is specifically designed to cater for children. It has human resources who have a warm relationship with the children and have expressed their willingness to step up and play a role, in line with the Norms and Standards of Teachers which include pastoral care. The Education Sector further has district offices, advisors etc. who are experienced in supporting and guiding the teams in the various schools. To allow full coverage of areas not yet covered by established feeding schemes, we feel that it would be safer to organise the delivery of take-away food at the schools under strict hygiene measures, than to expect under-developed society structures to manage an overwhelmingly complex process.

5. Depending on age and circumstances, “nurturing activities” include storytelling / reading creative self-expression (e.g. drawing, making, writing poetry, plays) / opportunities for inspiration that allow thinking, exploring, questioning and engaging with their current experience… In this time of trauma and anxiety, the focus should be deliberately on engagement rather than on performance. The most appropriate activities are those that give both parents and children a sense of accomplishment, encourage positive interaction and enable emotional healing. This may not be directly CAPS-related but are indeed very aligned to the spirit of CAPS which is to promote creativity, ingenuity and inventiveness through Art and Culture. Given the present unprecedented global reality, it is the deep learning that our children need to engage in.

This is a formidable opportunity for parents and caregivers to build new patterns of engagement in the learning of their children. It is also time for us to focus on developing 21st century skills, such as critical and creative thinking, problem solving, communication, resilience and empathy; skills that are required now more than ever by our youth.

6. We appreciate that it is not in the DBE’s powers to ensure safe places for vulnerable children to spend the lockdown. However, given the grave concerns around the risks of children and teenagers locked with abusive relatives, we would welcome clear guidance to educators in terms of what they can do if they suspect that one or several of their learners are not safe in their homes.

7. We appreciate that there is also a need for academic support. For the duration of the lockdown, we would invite the DBE to focus its efforts on responses that are available to the most marginalised, such as: creative and attractive radio broadcasting in all provinces and all languages; ongoing use of television to inspire and challenge our learners; and use of engaging / non-threatening printed materials that can be distributed with the meals.

We appreciate that mobile operators have stepped up to support the online platforms of the DBE. We salute the efforts of DGMT and NASCEE to request zero-rating for the digital services of public benefit organisations seeking to support early learning and education.

We wish the DBE to continue supporting these initiatives, and to create clarity for teachers, learners and caregivers on mechanisms to gain data-free access to online resources.

In addition, options to support the learners’ ability to communicate amongst themselves, work in groups, and submit their homework without paying for data need to be explored and creative solutions are required.

8. Recognising that provision of content alone is not sufficient for learning to take place, we would like the DBE to explore and extend free “Dial a tutor” telephonic support such as the line put in place by the Mpumalanga Provincial Department of Education. We, as civil society, would like to play a role in reaching out to marginalised communities and encouraging the learners from under-resourced schools to make use of this service.

9. We appreciate that, once the lockdown is lifted, there will be a need to carefully manage all learners’ progression to ensure that the system is able to make room for the next cohort entering school, without compromising the academic trajectory of those affected by disrupted schooling in 2020. We appreciate the work that the DBE has started to do in this regard. As civil society, we pledge our support to the DBE and provincial departments in their effort to create alignment of all parties in seeking to identify, build and validate the essential core competencies that learners will need to focus on going forward.

10. Lastly, we appeal for consideration of special cases:

In a nutshell, we fundamentally believe that the Covid-19 disruption is too serious to warrant a “going back to normal” scenario. As in all other areas of society, the pandemic is calling for radical creative shifts and a willingness to take risks to allow new patterns to emerge. We also believe that what is enabled now, during lockdown, will determine what will become possible after the lockdown.

Signatories, in alphabetical order:

Novosti Buta, Primary Science Programme (PSP)

S Cilliers: MD MathMoms

Jenni Copeland - Founder Teacher, LEAP Science and Maths School

Dr Zorina Dharsey, Primary Science Programme (PSP)

Masennya Dikotla

Wilmi Dippenaar, Director, the Seven Passes Initiative

Justin Foxton, the Peace Agency

Jeremy Gibbon, Programme Director, Jakes Gerwel Fellowship

John Gilmour, Executive Director of LEAP Science and Maths Schools

Michelle Graham, Montessori Transformations

Tom Hamilton

Faruk Hoosain (C.L.A.S.S. Consulting)

Caroline Isted, Founder: Thula Baba

James Keevy – Chairperson, National Association of Social Change Entities (NASCEE) & CEO, JET Education Services

Prof. Thobeka V. Mda, CPUT

Herman Meyer – Independent Education Consultant

Dr Nadeen Moolla, Pearson Marang Education Trust

Jacqueline Nelson, WCED Educator

Shelley O’Carroll, Wordworks

Jeff Paulse, Founder: Reading & Writing Solutions

Prof. Mamphela Ramphele – ReImagine SA

Urshula Saindon - Executive Committee of Reading to Learn South Africa

Ridwan Samodien, co-founder: Partners for Possibility

Judy Tate, Executive Director – Inanda Seminary/Khanyisa Inanda Seminary Community Projects

Dr Louise van Rhyn, CEO: Symphonia for South Africa NPC

Dr Magali von Blottnitz, Symphonia for South Africa

as well as 53 MathMoms, 23 Yeboneers, nine principals and ten retired teachers (Mentors) still working in their communities.

Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp’s.