One year on: Education resilience in a time of Covid
Statement by Brian Schreuder: Head of Department – Western Cape Education Department
Tomorrow, marks the one-year anniversary of lockdown in South Africa.
Education, as a sector, has certainly had its fair share of ups and downs since the 26th of March 2020, but as a sector, we are stronger and more determined than ever.
Our low point is the lives we have lost to this virus, both within the education sector, and society in general.
We have sadly lost 147 employees of the WCED to Covid related illness. This represents 0.35% of our staff in the WCED. I would again like to extend my condolences to all the family, friends and school communities who are mourning the deaths of their loved ones, friends and teacher heroes.
As of 23 March 2021, 66 WCED employees are reportedly to be currently positive. 52 cases are teachers. They are in our thoughts as they recover from the virus that has affected so many. We wish them, and our other colleagues, a fast recovery.
Over the past year there has been much debate about whether we keep our schools open or closed and the risks associated with learners and educators being back at school. While we have learnt a lot over the past year, we are confident that increases in educator infections are not traditionally as a result of teachers and learners being back at school. The statistics reveal this. (Please see attached graph on comparisons)
Instead, the rate of infections amongst WCED staff follows the same trends that are seen in terms of overall community transmissions across the Province – as we naturally have teachers and parents that live in those communities. Over 50% of Covid related deaths of teachers happened in December and January, when teachers were not at school. This aligns with the data recorded by the Province in terms of the peak of the second wave.
As a sector, we have rallied against perceptions that the 2020 school year “is lost” and that our schools should remain closed. Instead, our principals, teachers and parents have fought hard to ensure that our children continue to receive education because the long term loss of teaching and learning time has so many negative implications. There is no doubt that this generation of learners will be impacted upon – as school days have been lost. But we are resolute in the belief that we made the right choices during difficult times, whilst we understand the anxieties that prevailed. The overwhelming support of parents to return their children to school was evident and the support, love and commitment of our educators and staff shone through.
A memorable, but praiseworthy moment was when we decided to open our schools in Alert Level 5 in April 2020 to feed learners on the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP). This decision was not supported by everyone and we were even confronted by threats. But we were resolute in the belief that this decision was the right thing to do. Children were hungry and needed our support. As the DBE indicated that NSNP funding could not be used for feeding at the time, special funding was sought from Provincial Treasury to open our school gates and feed learners. Over 1.6 million meals were served during this period by the NSNP schools, and thousands of additional meals served by schools that decided to feed communities out of their own good will. When schools officially opened in June, albeit in a limited capacity, the WCED continued feeding as per normal with this scheme, regardless of whether learners were attending school that day, due to their grades having not returned.
Our position on opening schools to feed the hungry was confirmed when the Gauteng High Court granted an order in July 2020 that all feeding schemes should resume, whether schools were closed or not, in all Provinces. The order declared that it was the duty of all Provinces to ensure that the NSNP provides meals to all qualifying learners. We were not a respondent in this case, as we had been feeding learners all along.
Another highlight is the amazing innovation and support provided to learners over the past year. We have continued to try and ensure that learning continues both at home and in the classroom throughout this period. The remarkable and innovative initiatives by our teachers and the curriculum directorate of the WCED have assisted with this process. The e-learning platforms that we had put in place through the e-learning gamechanger and other initiatives, assisted with this process. We will continue to try and enhance digital learning moving forward.
But, without a doubt, the attitude and strength shown by learners, teachers and WCED employees to ensure quality learning has been the biggest highlight of all. This past year has showcased the many positive values that we live by in our sector. Our teachers care. And while many have focused on the negative aspects of this past year – there has been so many stories of hope, resilience, self-sacrifice and support for and by our learners. (Many of these stories are featured in WCED News: https://wcedonline.westerncape.gov.za/wced-news)
The numbers writing and ultimately passing the 2020 NSC was a proud moment for us. The Western Cape continued to retain learners in the system despite the pandemic, and achieved the lowest decrease in pass rate than any other Province in the country – this is testament to the hard work and commitment of our schools, their teachers and the staff that supported them.
As we reflect on the past year and look at what is happening all over the world, and the valuable teaching time lost in many education sectors, we are grateful that we had the opportunity to open our doors to learners.
In a recent report by Unicef, schools for more than 168 million children globally have been completely closed for almost an entire year due to COVID-19 lockdowns. The report calls attention to the “education emergency” that exists and to raise awareness about the need for governments to keep schools open, or prioritise them in reopening plans. (https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/schools-more-168-million-children-globally-have-been-completely-closed)
The concerns raised about the wellbeing of children who cannot attend school are valid.
The calls to prioritise keeping schools open again reaffirms the position we have held throughout the pandemic. Obviously, situations have differed in countries, but under our circumstances, we know that we did the very best we could in the situation we were placed in and will continue to do so, going forward.
We cannot, however, be complacent. The virus still exists, and we must continue to remain vigilant. The WCED was constantly informed by health specialists on the trends and implications of the pandemic and advised us on its limited impact on children. We are grateful for the wonderful support we have received from the Provincial Department of Health, both on the frontline and behind the scenes. They have given us invaluable advice and input into our guidelines, protocols and behaviors and continue to support us when the need arises.
They are of course advising us about continued cases and possible clusters of infections. Together, with the support of local municipalities, we are working hard to ensure that we all play a role in stopping the spread and keeping our communities as safe as possible.
One year on, as we remember our fallen colleagues, we also celebrate the strength, resilience and commitment of the education sector of the Western Cape. It has been a tumultuous year, with many trials and tribulations, but we know that as a Department our vision for Quality Education is unwavering.
Please see attached image of our journey thus far.