The teacher shortage induced by covid-19 threatens to derail progress made in the sector thus far. 

The Department of Basic Education (DBE) faces a potentially devastating teacher shortage crisis as thousands of educators seek to work from home, much to the detriment of learners

The Daily Maverick has reported that about 27 000 public school teachers with co-morbidities, or who are over the age of 60, have applied for concessions to work from home, and 22 000 of these applications were approved nationally.

Although the education sector has made progress in attracting new teachers, it was facing a relative teacher shortage crisis before covid-19 became a health threat in the country. The global pandemic not only highlights this issue, but also threatens to undo a lot of the work the department has done in the past decade to attract new teachers.

A 2018 Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) projected that by 2028, South Africa would have to replace 32% of its educators who are over 50 years old and close to retirement age. Due to the pandemic, the education sector might see this projection fast-tracked as, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), older people and people with co-morbidities are more vulnerable to the virus.

The education sector cannot afford to lose teachers because of the pandemic, as losing teachers now will put further pressure on an already strained sector. The 2018 Occupations in High Demand in South Africa (OIHD) technical report identified teachers as a professional occupation that is in high demand in the country.

A 2015 Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) report projected that South Africa will need about 448 458 educators in public and independent schools by the year 2019, and 456 000 by 2023. The DBE’s 2019 School Realities Report showed that the sector is not far behind the 2019 required numbers, recording 444 857 educators and with the shortfall amounting to 3 600 teachers. Gauteng was one of the provinces dealing with a looming teacher shortage problem even before the pandemic. The report showed that in 2019 the province lost 1 514 teachers. This was more than other provinces.

Furthermore, the report noted that Gauteng had 44 801 more learners in schools in 2019 than in the previous year, an increase from 2 402 576. This decline in educators, coupled with the exponential increase in the number of learners enrolled in schools, is indicative of a teacher shortage problem that was already brewing.

The Gauteng education spokesperson, Steve Mabona, said 4 752 educators opted to work from home during the pandemic because they have co-morbidities. Although Mabona says the province is not dealing with a teacher shortage challenge as yet, one cannot argue that so many fewer teachers in classrooms will ease the burden.

The Governing Body Foundation’s provincial executive officer, Wendy Elshove, acknowledged that the virus has had an impact on the availability of teachers.

“There has always been a teacher shortage, but covid-19 has definitely made it a lot worse,” said Elshove. ‘’We have a lot of elderly teachers that [are] over 60 years old [who] should not be at work. We have a lot of teachers now with co-morbidities and it is not safe for them to be at school. So, that is why we are always encouraging youngsters to go into teaching. We need teachers.”

The OIHD report notes that although an absolute shortage of teachers in South Africa’s education system is implausible, there probably will be a relative shortage of educators in certain phases and subjects.

Elshove agreed with this, pointing out that student teachers are not so eager to specialise in certain subjects. “Your scarce-skill subjects, like your specialised subjects, have a lot of shortage of teachers because teachers are not specialising in those subjects any more. We’ve got new subjects like technical maths and technical science; that’s a field that [teachers] have got to specialise in,” she said.

The head of the Wits School of Education, Professor Felix Maringe, said they are aware of the shortage that exists in certain subjects, but the school cannot dictate to students that they specialise in those subjects.

Maringe said, “The government itself has tried to incentivise the subject areas where there is a shortage. So, if you want to do a bachelor of education degree in the foundations phase, for example, then the government is very willing to provide funding for that. But if [students] don’t want to teach in the foundations phase, you can’t really force them to move to the foundations phase.”

The Funza Lushaka Bursary Programme is a government initiative that was launched in 2007 to attract new teachers to public schools. In 2019 the programme awarded 12 954 bursaries to student teachers, and 4 143 of these went to first-time recipients.

Institutions of higher learning have, in previous years, been successful in producing qualified teachers. According to the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) 2018/2019 annual report, institutions of higher learning produced 25 113 education graduates – 2 333 above the target.

As we move past the third quarter of 2020, the covid-19-induced shortage, together with the two major disruptions to the DBE’s academic calendar, raises concerns around how learners will be affected.

Elshove noted that although there is a visible shortage of teachers in some parts of the sector, it is not as crippling to students because of the rotational classes put in place to adhere to social distancing in schools.

“I do not think it will affect the results that much. I don’t know if we will get the matric results that we want this year because I think it’s been very stressful for everybody. Some [learners] will fail and some of them won’t,” said Elshove.

She noted, however, that the long-term impacts of the covid-19-induced shortage could result in a loss of knowledge.

“We all need to encourage young people to take up teaching as a profession. Unfortunately, those educators with co-morbidities might never come back, and with many of our educators reaching retirement age we are losing experience and a wealth of knowledge,” Elshove said.

It appears that although there is some optimism in the sector, there are also some concerns: from whichever vantage point it is viewed, it seems that the coronavirus could have long-term effects on the health of our education and of our people.

FEATURED IMAGE: The covid-19 pandemic could derail the basic education sector’s efforts to mitigate teacher shortage in schools as the novel coronavirus forces teachers to stay away in attempts to lower their risk of infection. Photo: Akhona Matshoba