Teachers, the unsung heroes of the pandemic

Primary school teachers at government schools in Benoni and Actonville, Gauteng, have gone beyond the call of duty to ensure the class of 2020 have been protected, educated and well-nourished despite the threats of the covid-19 pandemic.

Arbor student

As an Arbor Primary student raises a victory sign during class, pupils around South Africa celebrate their own victories of receiving an education despite the threat of covid-19, thanks to the endless dedication of primary school teachers. Photo: Niall Higgins

Arriving at the silver gates of Arbor Primary School in Benoni, Gauteng, it is not difficult to understand from where the school derives its name and crest: Strong and sturdy oak, elm and ash trees line the perimeter of the lush grounds. 

Like the nurturing trees, Arbor’s teachers also stand tall and strong as they welcome their arriving learners as if they are precious seeds of a future rooted in the grounds of the school.  

The pupils, of grades one to seven, with vividly coloured masks covering their noses, mouths and cheeks, sit metres apart from each other, each in perfectly demarcated circle. They giggle as they gaze, squinting, at the sun overhead, oblivious to the dangers now lurking in our viral new world. 

Actonville Primary School, however, seems a stark contrast to the apparent serenity of Arbor. Here, teacher and covid-19 co-ordinator Zuhra Balle stands at the school’s gates on a crisp Monday morning, taking each students temperature and asking important questions: “Have you been coughing lately, Allaina? Feeling out of breath today, Tshepo? Had any headaches, Martin? Keep two metres apart, you two! 

The next learner in line for the temperature gun poses a profound question Balle says she will never forget: “Ma’am, you always ask us all these questions, but why don’t you ever ask us if we sleep at night?” 

The mental and emotional wellbeing of students

Balle tells Wits Vuvuzela that this startling question made her and other teachers worry that students might be suffering symptoms of depression, due to the effects of the covid-19 lockdown. 

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) has advised parents all over the country to watch for warning signs of depression in their children, as South Africa has the eighth highest rate of suicide in the world. 

An article in health publication Spotlight, published in April this yearserved to underline this warning by noting, “Rather than bouncing back’, children instead incorporate trauma into their growth and future lives. 

“Ma’am, you always ask us all these questions, but why don’t you ever ask us if we sleep at night?”

Balle voices her own concern. “Some of these children lost parents, some lost homes and some were abused, so we as teachers had to do something,” she says. We are now in the process of counselling over 200 children and we have a psychologist coming on board full time.”

Seeing her students experiencing stress and anxiety left Balle in need of emotional support too: “I myself broke at one point, I had to give it up because I needed counselling myself.”

The headmistress of Actonville Primary School, Venessa Moodley, reveals that she almost lost her life to covid-19 and therefore understands the severity of the pandemic better than most.  

Anticipating the impact lockdown would have on her pupils, Moodley created a ‘covid survey’ which was distributed to every student. The survey asked questions regarding pupils experiences of illness, anxiety, trauma, violence and poverty 

“This really allowed us to see what was happening to our students beyond the school walls, and to take action by providing aid in any way we could,” says Moodley. 

primary school students

Actonville Primary school students posing in a colourful hallway wearing equally colourful masks. Photo: Niall Higgins

Counselling and care

With these new insights, teachers at Actonville Primary incorporated counselling into the everyday school programmeGrade seven English and creative arts teacher, Rani Chetty, took this course of action to heart 

I was encouraged to really get to know the kids. Every morning, our teachers will start class with a prayer and then open up the class for a discussion on how they are coping and feeling, just so they know we are a family,” says Chetty. 

“I myself broke at one point, I had to give it up because I needed counselling myself.”

Emotional and physical stress are not exclusive to lowerincome schools in Actonville. Just to the north, Arbor Primary has taken steps to address the trauma experienced by its learners due to the covid-19 pandemic 

The principal of Arbor, Patrick Arentson, swiftly decided to enlist religious leaders and mental health professionals to aid his pupils 

“We continue to bring in a ministeby the name of Basil Panayi to de-brief the children and staff, as well as a psychologist who works through the students’ emotions and feelings regarding the lockdown,” he said.

Arbor teacher and pupil

Throughout the covid-19 pandemic, teachers watched over pupils to ensure that they not only received a quality education, but also had access to nutritious food and emotional support. Photo: Niall Higgins.  

Despite accounts of learners being frightened of having their temperatures taken, Arbor Primary’s head girl13-year-old Shadae Figueira-Parratt, says teachers do everything they can to comfort their pupils 

“My one friend has panic attacks sometimes and we call our teachers, who really help a lot when you’re not doing okay,’’ she says with a smile. ‘’One of my friends talks to her teacher about everything she goes through. 

For many teachers and pupilsthe transition to online learning during the lockdown invoked acute anxiety and stress. Schools such as Arbor Primary knew that quick action was essential to preserve the academic year. 

Online learning and overcoming data struggles

As a result, the school established WhatsApp groups and created Google Classroom programmes to relay vital information to its students. Through these platforms, the teachers worked tirelessly to put together course content from scratch. 

Arbor’s deputy headmistress, Wendy Lewis, says educators never stopped working and were incredibly innovative’’ in the face of lockdown restrictions. “We would use our WhatsApp group and online classrooms to create pre-recorded videos of us re-enacting lessons, in order for students to feel as close to being taught in real life as possible,” she says.  

Online learning is not an option for everyone though, since digital divide statistics in South Africa are high. According to broadband company Cable, the cost of data in South Africa is prohibitive, at an average cost of R106.20 for 1GB. 

Additionally, an article in Daily Maverick in July this year stated, “The adverse effects of the [digital] divide are likely to remain a factor in education for the foreseeable future. 

Keeping these statistics in mind, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) did not provide any public primary school with data stipends to accommodate online learning practices during the lockdown.  

This was disappointing for Arbor Primary grade four English teacher and head of department Colleen Liebenberg, who says teaching has now become an expense out of her own pocket. 

“Many students and staff battled with access to data as well as affording it. This meant students would struggle to access video lessons and teachers would sacrifice income to provide classes, because we had to buy data ourselves in order to upload our lessons online,” says Liebenberg. 

Arbor students

Arbor Primary students attending class in the school hall. Photo: Niall Higgins.

The creation of “lockdown packs”

Actonville Primary was hit hard by similar data and financial implications. Despite it being a proud and dedicated school, many of its students cannoafford internet access or smart devices, due to poverty and socio-economic challenges. The school’s 1 356 students battle to even afford the school fee of R1 100 a year.  

Despite these disadvantages, Actonville educators rose to the occasion wholeheartedly and began to create customised workbooks for their learners. 

Actonville teachers became the authors of their own ‘lockdown packs’ and created entirely unique models of learning so that students could continue working from home,” says Moodley. Our teachers filled the gap by doing whatever was necessary. 

In the absence of data stipends, one might assume the DBE would have provided lockdown packs to public schools. According to the Teacher Guidelines for Implementing the Revised Annual Teaching Plans (ATPs) statementhowever, the DBE provided subject guidelines and recommended’ class work, but no physical reading material. 

Poppy Benny, subject adviser at the DBE in Ekhuruleni North, says, We developed resources per subject, which were then shared with teachers online to assist with creating their own learning programmes. 

Arbor’s Lewis says, however, producing these workbooks was necessary but not cheap or easy: “Prepping work for lockdown learners has been a huge sacrifice of time and effort, and printing out and delivering course packs at our own expense has been essential to continuing students’ education.  

Actonville student

During the lockdown, many lower-income students from Actonville Primary and beyond were not taught through online classes due to no access to data or internet devices and therefore, relied on customised learning packs created and distributed by teachers. Photo: Niall Higgins.

Changes to the academic year

On top of limited access to class time, months of formal schooling were losdue to the lockdownIn response, government schools applied ‘curriculum trimming’ as part of their recovery plan by cutting the academic syllabus down to core learning material. 

Subsequently, primary schools will set and moderate their own examination papers this year. Exam marks have, however, been reduced in most cases and class assessment marking will be increased. This does not negate the fact that many students still did not have any schooling at all during the lockdown, and therefore have less training under their belts. 

The pressure on teachers to perform and be trustworthy is huge now, more than ever, especially in disadvantaged areas with little to no class time, says Memory Panayi, head of the language department at Arbor Primary. 

Varying class schedules also led to difficulties in creating and implementing teaching plans. Some children came in on a bi-weekly basis, whereas some stayed home. This meant  teachers had to teach both formally at school and by distance for online students.  

“We essentially had two jobs,” says Arbor’s Liebenberg. “We had to constantly restructure the programme, redo each class prep multiple times and then teach the same class over again because, as time got reduced to complete the syllabus, we had to adapt.” 

Increased poverty and hungry children

What is more, the academic pitfalls are not the only obstacle. As I stroll through the corridors of Actonville Primary, made colourful with posters, to investigate the unique challenges of ‘covid learning’’, an intriguing area catches my eye. It makes me wonder whether academics are, after all, teachers’ only concern.  

The small area contains buckets and patches of fertile soil in sunny locations. These are home to a rich variety of carrots, onions, potatoes and other vegetables.  

Noticing my curiosity, a grade seven teacher and co-ordinator of Actonville Primary’s feeding scheme, Ellen Buthelezi, speaks with a heavy heart. There is no way you can teach a child with an empty stomach. During lockdown, there were literally queues of students lining up outside school looking for a decent meal, she says. 

Her comment implies there are many children from impoverished families, and for them coming to school means getting something to eat. 

Buthelezi senses my sudden gloom and speaks reassuringly. “We currently feed more than 400 students daily and maintain these food gardens to keep our children well-nourished, she says. 

According to a Stats SA report posted in July, more than 62.1%, or six out of 10 South African children between birth and age 17 lack the funds for daily meals. 

The DBE normally contributes to food security through the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) by providing meals to more than nine million learners a year. During the lockdown, howeverthis service came to a halt, leaving many students hungry. 

Actonville Food Garden

Grade seven pupils from Actonville Primary tending to one the school’s food gardens. Photo: Niall Higgins.

Food packs and nutrition schemes

Arbor’s Panayi recalls that during the lockdown, teachers were worried about what was happening to kids at home who did not have food“Wwent and delivered groceries to families personally during lockdown,’’ she saysWhat started as a temporary feeding scheme became a permanent initiative that now feeds more than 40 families. 

When the students finally began returning to school, teachers quickly picked up that they were arriving without lunches. “We then decided to begin an adoptachild scheme by assigning teachers to select and feed students in need,” says Arentson. “Suddenly our teachers began ‘adopting’ more and more children, and they supplied lunches every single day.” 

AActonville Primary too, learners experienced the difference and joy one extra meal could bring to their everyday lives“In the covid lockdown it’s a struggling time,’’ says grade seven pupil Enock Mateke. ‘There wasn’t enough to eat for everyone at school, but now we get nice food packages that we take home, so noone is hungry.

There is no way you can teach a child with an empty stomach.

With justified pride, Actonville deputy head girl Micayla Pillay says, Us grade sevens grew the food garden all by ourselves. We need energy to study, and the fruit we get every day helps a lot!” 

Each school meal adds up to one more child whose future looks a little brighter. 

As the school day comes to a close in Gauteng, precious young seedlingare returned to their guardians by caring ‘gardeners who toil long after their stipulated working hours, tired but unbroken.  

One cannot help but wonder: does the nation know that its teachers are true unsung heroes of the covid-19 pandemic?

Hear the voices of this story in the podcast episode below:

FEATURED IMAGE: As an Arbor Primary student raises a victory sign during class, pupils around South Africa celebrate their own victories of receiving an education despite the threat of covid-19, thanks to the endless dedication of primary school teachers. Photo: Niall Higgins 

BACK TO IN-DEPTH 2020 MAIN PAGE. 

Food first, education after

The national lockdown caused by the covid-19 pandemic meant that the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) was suspended for the first time since its inception in 1994, leaving millions of learners in South Africa without the security of a daily nutritious meal. 

It’s a quiet Wednesday morning at SivelilePrimary School, a state primary school in MeadowlandsSoweto, Gauteng province, South Africa. The silence can be attributed to the classes that are still taking place just before lunch, at 11 am. 

As I enter the school gates, the security guard asks, singakusiza ngani sisi?” I explain to him my business at the school and he offers me a seat outside the small wooden shed located just inside the entrance to the school. He goes to confirm my meeting with the school principal. 

Once the principal has confirmed my visit, head of department (HOD) at Sivelile, Fezeka Tabata, takes me to one of the grade seven classrooms. 

What is a nutritious meal? 

It is 11am and learners are about to eat their nutritious meal of the day.The meal consists of soft porridge for breakfast. Lunch is usually a starch, protein, fruit or vegetable. There are various options for starch: maize meal, rice or samp. 

Proteins include milk, pilchards, soya and sugar beans. Vegetables are normally cabbage, pumpkin and a fruit, depending on what is in season. The lunch the learners receive depends on the day of the week. 

The needs of each province are kept in mind when the decisions on what the learners eat are made. They are then concluded by nutritionists who determine what is nutritious for the learners and what the national food budget is for schools. 

The women who cook at the school, and who are also parents to some of the learners, bring large containers of food from the kitchen into one of the grade seven classrooms as they prepare to dish up for the learners. 

School feeding schemes provide parents and caregivers the opportunity to work and provide for their families. Photo: Khuleko Siwele.

There is no hall at the school, so all the learners are either dished up for in their respective classrooms, in the corridor or in the kitchen. 

On this particular Wednesday, learners are being served rice, canned pilchards and butternut. The rice looks mushy and tastes slightly overcooked, the canned fish is stewed and has a tangy tomatolike taste, and the boiled butternut has a sweet, natural taste. 

The food looks bland at first sight, but it’s true that looks can be deceiving, because for me the food is more flavourful than it appears. I can also tell that these learners are used to the food they are receiving, because of their eagerness to dish up. 

“Why are you guys not excited? This is your favourite meal,” remarks Tabata.  The reason for the students’ lack of excitement seems to be because of the unfamiliar face in their classroom. 

As they are about to pray, one of the learners realises I am about to take a picture and shyly looks away. 

The lockdown meant that some of these kids went without the daily nutritious meal they depend on for survival, and this is what it still means for approximately two million learners in the country who are still not receiving the meal. No school means no food.

Court victory for the NSNP

In July, the High Court in Pretoria ordered the Department of Basic Education (DBE) to reinstate the NSNP, after private organisation Equal Education took the department to court. 

a life-saving programme for the poorestof the poor child

When this order was made, acting deputy judge andpresident of the North Gauteng High CourtSuletPotterill, in her ruling in the case of Equal Education and others v. the department of basic education and others, highlighted that the NSNP was “a life-saving programme for the poorestof the poor child”. 

Learners are not allowed to play outside during break in order to ensure social distancing, but learners make the most out of the little time they get to be outside. Photo: Khuleko Siwele

The National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) is a national project run by the department of basic education (DBE). The programme pre-lockdown fed over 9 million learners daily nutritious meal at public schools across the country.Sivelile primary is one of over 20 000 public schools in the country who depend on the school feeding scheme.  

This programme is labelled by Equal Educations researcher Stacey Jacobs as one of the more successful programmes run by the (DBE). 

The schools that are targeted fall under quintile one to three public primary and secondary schools and identified special schools in quintiles four and five.These are the poorest schools in the country. 

The purpose of a free daily meal

Through the implementation of the NSNP, the DBE aims at a sustainable provisioning of quality food to learners who are threatened by poverty and hunger. This food is to enhance the learning capacity of children while at school by providing a daily nutritious meal, and to encourage school attendance. 

“School feeding can improve the consumption of nutritious food by children, if the menu is well designed (by nutrionists) and especially if both breakfast and lunch are delivered at school,” according to the Food Security SA Working Paper Series: #004.

When children are not receiving these meals, they become susceptible to not just illnesses but being exploited, as well as other social injustices faced by children in South Africa that are heightened when learners aren’t in school

From the mouth of a beneficiary 

“Wow, I didn’t know Wits was this big,” says Lawrence Manaka, a matric learner at JB Matabane Secondary School, as he gets out of his Uber at Wits Art Museum (WAM) from Ivory Park, where his school is situated. 

It’s around 3pm on a Thursday afternoon and Manaka is still in his school uniform, a yellow shirt with a blue tie that has the schools logo, and khaki pants. We walk into WAM and I offer him a seat on the black couches located in what used to be a busy cafeteria with students, lecturers and visitors stopping by during the day, but is now filled with silence. 

Manaka, a beneficiary of the programme, wasn’t one of the learners negatively affected by the programme being stopped in higher levels of the lockdown. In as much as he sometimes eats the food from school, it is not a need for him.  

The matric learner gives me a little background information about the area he’s from: I am from Ivory park and it’s a very underprivileged community and there are a lot of learners there who depend solely on the meals that they get from school. 

‘’When some of my schoolmates come to school, it’s not just them coming to learn – it’s also them coming to get the meal,’’ says ManakaSo, when [the country] went into hard lockdown some of the learners faced a huge problem, because now they couldn’t get access to food.”  

Manaka tells me about a friend of his who was hit hard by the school feeding scheme being suspended. “I have a friend who would come to my house, and because I know the situation back home, he would get food from my house or my mum would give him [money]. 

‘’You could tell he really needed the food to get through the day. His situation was extreme to the point where he considered dropping out of school and looking for work rather than being at home hungry. When we went back to school you could tell it became better, because now he can get at least two meals a day,” says Manaka. 

Department backtracks on NSNP

In March, after the country recorded its first cases of covid-19, the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, announced that all schools in the country would be closed, which also meant the NSNP would be suspended. More than nine million learners stopped receiving a daily meal at school because of this.  

On May 19, day 54 of the national lockdown,Motshekga, in a media statement,publicly announced that pupils in grades seven and 12 would return to school in June, and that the NSNP would resume for all qualifying pupils at the same time. 

The minister did not live up to her word when schools finally resumed on June 8, with grade seven and grade 12 being the only grades to receive the meal, saying the department needed more time.  

This prompted Equal Education (EE), together with two Limpopo high schools supported by Equal Education Law Centre and SECTION27, to take the DBE and provincial education departments to court on June 12.  

The reason for this was the EE believes that the backtracking of the DBE in providing learners with this meal, after promising otherwise, violates learners’ constitutional rights. 

The failure of the DBE and provincial education departments to roll out the NSNP to all qualifying learners, or even to produce a plan or programme for doing so, is a regressive measure that violates learners’ rights to basic nutrition, basic education and equality, said Equal Education. 

Even if every child has access to education, they cannot learn well if they are hungry. Photo: Khuleko Siwele

Equal Education wanted the judge to declare that all qualifying learners, regardless of whether or not they have resumed classes, must receive a daily meal. 

“South Africans are at high risk of micronutrient deficiency, specifically Vitamin A and iron. Lack of Vitamin A impairs the immune system, while lack of iron leads to anaemia, fatigue and dizziness. Hunger and micronutrient deficits are known to impact negatively on school attendance, cognitive capacity and immunity to disease,” says Food Security SA. The NSNP aims to avoid these illnessesand during a time of covid-19 this is more important than ever. 

Lehlonolo Magqokidirector of the NSNP for the Gauteng department of education (GDE), in his departmental office at 55 Fox Street, explains that it is not the education department’s responsibility to feed children when they are out of school, and the lockdown facilitated such a time. 

we never offered meals during lockdown level five because the grant that comes from national did not allow us

“We, as the GDE nutrition directorate, offer meals to learners that are at school from Monday to Friday. So, we never offered meals during lockdown level five because the grant that comes from national did not allow us to offer meals to learners. We do not offer learners food while they are at home,” says Magqoki. 

Child support grant not sufficient

The child support grant (CSG) was ‘topped up’ in May, from R440 to R740, during the lockdown. This has proved to be insufficient becausefor millions of households across the country food security was gravely compromised due to the covid-19-necessitated lockdown,” said Equal Education in a statement. 

According to evidence from the National Income Dynamics Study (NIDS)- Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (CRAM) Wave 1, the StatSA food poverty line per person is approximately R578 a month, and the CSG would not have covered this amount before the topup. 

The survey, focusing mainly on that one-third of households fully dependent on grants and calculating the grant income they would qualify for, found that 87% of children would have been in poverty before the top ups were introduced. 

“The top-ups were indeed much larger than the loss of school meals, but the lockdown took away the certainty of a nutritious meal a day on school days,” NIDS-CRAM wave 1. 

Not all learners at JB Matabane secondary school qualify for the CSG. Lawrence Makana who is also a learner member Equal Education says “not all learners are South African citizens some of these learners are at school using permits, meaning they are foreigners. This means they don’t qualify for the social grant.  

The NIDS-CRAM in its recommendation for school meals, recommends that school feeding be extended to provide meals for the weekend during the pandemic. This provision would allow learners to eat during weekends or public holidays when the feeding scheme does not operate. 

This is not something the department has not considered. “The only challenge [the DBE] has, and it’s been spoken about for [approximately] five years, is that now we are feeding the learners Monday to Friday, and some of these learners are from childheaded families that do not have food on weekends. The department is looking at means of augmenting meals on weekends with the DSD on how we can help, but currently meals end on weekdays,” says Lehlonolo Magqoki, as he eats his breakfast cereal. 

According to a courtordered departmental report, the covid-19 pandemic has prompted the provincial department of Gauteng to change its standard operating procedures in respect of NSNP to prevent and manage the spread of the virus in schools, while providing learners with meals 

FEATURED IMAGE: The suspension of the school nutrition programme in March, left over nine million South African learners deprived of having an opportunity to access food. Photo: Khuleko Siwele

BACK TO IN-DEPTH 2020 MAIN PAGE. 

Foundation phase teachers confront the unexpected

Foundation phase teachers in South Africa have been left reeling after new teaching and learning adjustments, varying from school to school, were made as a consequence of the covid-19 pandemic and nationwide lockdown. 

Embattled teachers have found themselves under fire in the front line of a unique crisis – and in general they have individually risen to the challenge by finding ways and means to win the battle for the welfare and education of their learners. 

Since the beginning of the lockdown, I always say, ‘I have survived depression’. It was a lot,” said Reabetsoe Motsoaledi, a grade three teacher at SPARK Theresa Park, an independent school in Pretoria North. 

Foundation phase teachers, who teach grades R to three, were left on unstable footing after the covid-19 pandemic forced a national lockdown, and closure of primary schools across South Africa, in late March.  

“I had submissions every day. I found myself crying out of nowhere because I was just so drained. I even lost weight from all the stress. It really put a strain on me,” said Motsoaledi as she sat at a desk in her empty classroom, her face mask pulled down to her chin.  

A toll on their mental wellbeing

The South African Federation for Mental Health (SAFMH), a non-governmental organisation that advocates for accessible mental health care, stated in an article published in October: “One in four people will be affected by a mental health disorder at some point in their lives. 

Lloyd Ripley-Evans, a psychologist based in Johannesburg, explained to Wits Vuvuzela that the covid-19 pandemic would naturally have an impact on an individual’s mental health 

“This [covid-19] has been a prolonged trauma that the world has experienced and it has created so many knock-on effects,” said Ripley-Evans. “Pandemic aside, if somebody is going through something difficult on a personal level, it’s going to affect them in a work space because it can be quite consuming. Their capacity to be present can be impacted.”  

Foundation phase teachers are no less at risk than other frontline workers of having their mental wellbeing compromised. According to Ripley-Evans, this could also influence their relationship with their learners.   

“I think it has been significantly harder for foundation phase teachers to engage with their students effectively,’’ he said‘’Their ability to engage and connect with their students to the same level as before has significantly been impacted. 

Motsoaledi explained that adjusting to a new way of teaching onlineat the start of the lockdown, came with some unforeseen anxiety.  

“You have to keep in mind that parents are going to be in your video and watching you,” explained Motsoaledi. “Now you get even more nervous because you need to make sure everything is correct and you have to be the teacher that doesn’t make mistakes. But that’s not fair, because teachers do make mistakes.”  

found myself crying out of nowhere because I was just so drained. I even lost weight from all the stress. It really put a strain on me

SPARK schools have made use of an online programme, known as AskNelson, throughout the covid-19 pandemic. AskNelson is an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), free of charge to the teachers and designed to provide them with immediate emotional support. Teachers can rate how they are feeling on any given day and are put in touch with a local counsellor if they need help.  

The teachers at SPARK schools are able to use the programme at their own discretion and do not have to disclose its use to the school, confirmed SPARK Theresa Park assistant principal, Tshegofatso Diale.  

Motsoaledi said she had found alternative ways of dealing with her mental health instead of using the AskNelson programme. “I have always just tried to be strong and move on. Besides just praying, just talking to someone because we’re all going through the same thing as educators. And venting to family members or partners. I’ve never taken any bigger steps to deal with what I’m going through,” she said.  

Although being a foundation phase teacher is demanding, Motsoaledi said she loves her job and teaching is something she has always wanted to do. “I wanted to make a change to a child’s life, to develop a child, to be in the upbringing of that child. I wanted to make a difference,” she added positively

Protecting themselves and their loved ones

Mental health struggles have not been the only fallout of the covid-19 pandemic experienced by foundation phase teachers in South Africa.  

Odel David, a grade R teacher at Shari Crest Primary School in Lenasia, said she found it really tough to balance the need to stay at home with the demand to be at school, as a substitute teacher, for the grade seven learners 

“It really has been concerning mentally, because at home I am concerned about my family, but being at a government school, you also need to be available to the students. It is stressful when your emotions are weighed like that. You don’t know what’s going to happen and you are just preparing yourself for the worst situation,” said David.   

Odel David shows Wits Vuvuzela a photograph of her son, who has a comorbidity and is at risk of serious illness if he contracts the coronavirus. Photo: Laura Hunter.

She said she felt the pressure to adjust her teaching style to match the demands of an older grade: “Although I am a foundation phase teacher, I still have to fill in that gap. It is rather stressful because I am so used to the foundation phase and now I have to go teach the intermediate phase.  

Before showing Wits Vuvuzela around the dust-laden grounds of Shari Crest Primary School, with its colourful walls and palpable loving atmosphere, David mentioned that after a group of teachers at the school contracted covid-19, she felt pressured to remain at home. She has a 12-year old son who has a comorbidity, and is at high risk of contracting the coronavirus

“Being a mom of a special needs child, I know it’s very easy for him to contract covid. The beginning [of lockdown] was quite challenging because I wanted to be at home, because of the safety of my son, but then I was also thinking of the safety of my learners. It was better for us to be away from one another,” said a torn David.  

Navigating the digital divide

At Vuleka St Marks, an independent church school of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa in Randburg, teachers and learners have their hands sanitised and temperatures checked before making their way past the modest church and onto the playground.  

Before the teachers of Vuleka St Marks returned to school, they faceanother challenge brought on by the covid-19 pandemic – trying to successfully teach learners online while some learners had little to no access to the internet at home.  

Danielle Lang, a grade one teacher at Vuleka St Marks, said her biggest fear was the effect the pandemic had on the learners access to information, and whether the sudden interruption would cause them to fall behind.  

Danielle Lang sits at her desk marking her learners’ work. Lang noticed that some of her learners’ reading and writing skills had declined over the lockdown period. Photo: Laura Hunter.

“We moved to [Microsoft] Teams in April, but we first started with ClassDojo (an online learning platform) and sent out slides. It was difficult because many kids at our school are underprivileged, so they don’t have access to any computers or phones,” she said.   

Lang reminds us that the covid-19 pandemic has accentuated the digital divide in South Africa. The latest General Household Survey by Stats SA, published in 2018, stated that only an alarming 10.4% of households in South Africa have access to the internet at home. 

“I had two kids who had no access to Teams and their parents don’t have any smart devices. That was the biggest difficulty, because those kids did not get any information for about two months,” explained Lang.  

As soon as she was allowed to go back to the schoolLang printed resource packs for the children who did not have access to schoolwork during the lockdown. And since some of her learners had not been able to practise reading and writing every day, Lang noticed they had indeed fallen behind. 

There was a huge decrease in understanding, especially with writing and reading. That was very difficult, she said.   

Candice Barrett, a grade two teacher at Parkdene Primary School, a public schooin Boksburg, said her primary concern, at the start of the lockdown, was also if her learners would have access to schoolwork while trying to learn at home.  

“At first it was quite a concern because we had to adjust to a new way of teaching. The kids as well. Some didn’t have internet access or data because of the financial strains caused by covid,” explained Barrett. We did have a platform for parents to download the work but, because of data struggles, we weren’t sure the kids were going to do the work or if the parents could assist them.”  

Barrett also noted that her learners are too young to use certain online learning platforms. “We didn’t have Whatsapp groups or Zoom because the kids are only eight years old, so it was going to be a challenge to use that, she said.   

Barrett, who had a covid-19 scare after close family members tested positive for the coronavirus, said her other major concern was the physical health and safety of her learners.    

“I was concerned about the learners health, whether some were going hungry – at school we have a feeding scheme with extra lunches kids can fetch from the kitchen – and if kids were being abused staying with relatives. That’s constantly playing on my mind, because w[the teachers] care so much about them and we don’t know what’s going on,” she said with concern in her voice.   

The learners’ desks at Vuleka St Marks are divided by clear plastic shields in order to minimise the spread of the coronavirus. Photo: Laura Hunter.

 Addressing demands for extra emotional support

Although the health and safety of learners weighed heavily on the minds of the foundation phase teachers, the covid-19 pandemic has also resulted in learners demanding extra emotional support from them.

David, the grade R teacher from Shari Crest Primary, noticed that some of her learners demanded more of her attention once they had returned. She said it has been tricky to provide them with support, given all the physical restrictions existing in her classroom. 

“They have been seeking that emotional support, especially when it comes to physical contact. Grade Rs love hugging! And I am a teacher who loves to show love back,’’ said David‘‘There are certain children I have picked up on that really need that affection. You know they may not be getting that hug at home.   

Lang, whose classroom walls are covered with charmingly scraggy paper portraitssaid she also noticed that her learners need for emotional support increased once they returned to school.  

“A lot of kids we work with are not getting that emotional support from home. It is very difficult for them, coming to school and wanting to do the same things such as hugging or sharing. When you tell them off, you can see they are very upset about it and don’t understand why. There was a lot of strain on them not being at school and not having that support from me,” Lang said sadly.    

Vuleka St Marks has an on-hand social worker, Janet Gibbons, who has worked with all four Vuleka Schools in Johannesburg for nearly six years. When the pandemic hit, Gibbons transitioned her free services online to the learners, teachers and their families.  

“You can’t teach a child who is emotionally suffering,” said Gibbons, who believes all learners across South Africa should have access to emotional support services at school. And, she said, these services should also be extended to foundation phase teachers 

“So many teachers are being stretched. Teaching is very underrated. Not many people understand that until they are in the classroom teaching,” said Gibbons.   

The covid-19 pandemic may have thrown a spanner in the works for foundation phase teachersbut most of them agree this is just the new normal. And whether it is dealing with their own mental wellbeing, the physical and emotional safety of their learners or facing issues of digital access, the unexpected challenges these teachers have faced have only better equipped them for teaching in the future 

FEATURED IMAGE: The covid-19 pandemic has had overarching consequences on foundation phase teachers, who have had to face many challenges inside and outside the classroom. Photo: Laura Hunter.

BACK TO IN-DEPTH 2020 MAIN PAGE. 

Q&A with Gundo Mmbi

Gundo Mmbi, 27-years-old, is the principal at SPARK Soweto. Photo: Provided

Gundo Mmbi is a Wits BEd graduate and former Wits Education School Council transformation officer. She is a human rights activist and a proud member of the LGBTQIA+ community. She played an active role in the #FeesMustFall movement. In 2017, she became an assistant principal at SPARK Turffontein and is currently the founding principal of SPARK Soweto.

How did a young woman from Limpopo find herself at Wits?
I was told that the child of a cashier will never make it to one of the country’s most distinguished universities. I wanted to break barriers by securing a bursary. I studied hard to achieve acceptance to Wits University and secured a bursary from the housing department to study. That’s how my Wits story began!

You majored in mathematics and English. What factors motivated you to study BEd?
Growing up, I have always been curious about who was setting my exam papers and why the quality of the questions was the way it was. The standard of mathematics in South Africa has been lowered for scholars. Each year, I have watched as the pass mark declines, gradually dropping from 50% to 30%. I don’t think it is the teachers or the scholars, but our country’s curriculum leaders and education officials who may lack faith in our abilities.

Have you always been active in student politics and issues of social justice?
Wits is a world on its own, and you learn a lot there about who you are and what type of person you would like to be. Student politics exposed me to a world of leadership and holding people accountable for what they Wits is a world on its own, and you learn a lot there about who you are and what type of person you would like to be. Student politics exposed me to a world of leadership and holding people accountable for what they are responsible for. I was a shy village girl when I got to Wits until I stood up against my English lecturer when he questioned my gender identity: the activist in me was born.

How did your experiences at Wits lead you to where you are now?
A degree from Wits University enables you to proudly embrace your diversity while being proud of your unique individualism. Wits taught me it is okay to come from Limpopo and be raised by a single mother while fighting for free education.

At 27 you are the principal at SPARK Soweto. To what do you owe your success?
I owe my success to the freedom that was fought for by the people of South Africa. Knowing that their fight for my freedom opened doors to higher learning, I was able to go after what I want with no restrictions or prejudice. I owe it to all the teachers that shaped my life, who ensured that I became the best version of myself and not forgetting “my mother and father” (the National Student Financial Aid Scheme) for the financial support when I needed it.

What led to the move from Turffontein to Soweto?
I applied to be a tutor at SPARK Maboneng in 2015 while completing my degree in education. I then became a maths teacher at SPARK Maboneng and taught for two years. An opportunity to grow into school leadership was offered, and I applied for it. I became an assistant principal at SPARK Turffontein and now founding principal of SPARK Soweto. SPARK Schools has 21 schools across South Africa, and I am part of a group of young people who are changing the face of education.

FEATURED IMAGE: Gundo Mmbi, 27-years-old, is the principal at SPARK Soweto. Photo: Provided

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