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 

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As Told To: Tough times for independent media in South Africa

Sipho Kings (33), is a news editor at the Mail & Guardian (M&G), and  has worked at M&G for nearly a decade. 

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