The demand for distance learning is growing rapidly due to the covid-19 pandemic and it is further exacerbating the education inequalities in the country.

While she is teaching and writing on the chalkboard, the board falls off the wall and onto the floor. The grade seven teacher puts down the textbook and brushes her curly hair. She instructs one pupil to go call the caretaker.  

Another pupil is heard in class saying, “Sizolibeka phezu kwe-desk njengaleli elinye”, loosely translated as “We will put it on top of the desk as we did with the other one (chalkboard).”  This suggests it is not the first time these pupils have seen something like this happen. 

Wits Vuvuzela witnessed this recently on this reporter’s visit to Windy Hill Primary School, a no-fee school in Windy Hill, a plantation plot outside Wartburg, near Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal. 

Grade one pupils at Windy Hill Primary. Photo: Mandisa Ntuli 

Windy Hill Primary is one of thousands of schools in the country that were left behind during the pandemic, when schools were closed to limit the spread of the virus. In 2020 schools were closed for about five months. While affluent schools could continue with teaching and learning online, it was not so for schools such as Windy Hill, which lack the most basic of services. 

According to a July National Income Dynamics Study, Coronavirus Rapid Mobile (Nids-Cram) survey wave 5 research in education, learners from no-fee paying schools had to put their studies on hold, while pupils from high-paying schools were continuing with their curriculum as normal.  

The report further states that 93 days of normal school occurred between February and June 2021, with the assumption that contact learning occurred only 50% of this time. The report estimates that most primary school children have lost between 70% to a full year of learning since the start of lockdown in March 2020.   

Speaking in a parliamentary meeting discussing the government’s response to the covid-19 pandemic in schools, DA MP Baxolile Nodada told the portfolio committee on basic education in Parliament in June 2021 that the covid-19 pandemic had exacerbated the gap in the education system. This was particularly so for those who are poor and attend rural or township schools, compared to pupils who had access to network and digital devices. 

While learners from affluent schools and homes sat in front of their laptops or tablets to learn during the lockdown, this was something impossible at Windy Hill. The school does not have electricity, it has no photocopy machines, no phone lines and teachers do not even have network coverage when they are at the school.  

A teacher there who did not want to be named told Wits Vuvuzela, “The possibility of online learning in such schools is very slim. Life this side is nothing compared to the cities. There is no service delivery la emakhaya (here in rural areas).”   

The teacher said Windy Hill was built many years ago and since then there had been no development at the school. She told Wits Vuvuzela teachers and learners still use pit toilets. “If the government has not built proper sanitation facilities in as many years, when will these children get digital devices when they get eventually introduced?”  

She further said this is why you find that teachers take their own children to more affluent schools, where they would pay more than they would if they had taken their children to a township school. “It’s because we see the conditions in our schools. I won’t take my child to a school that I know has no windows, no proper infrastructure, no internet and no sports fields,” she said.  

The lack of access to digital devices  

A parent of a grade five learner at Windy Hill, Mbalenhle Mseleku, told Wits Vuvuzela she was relieved when her child went back to school. The homework was a lot, but they had to make up for lost time. A lot of learning was meant to take place during lockdown, but they couldn’t. Parents in Windy Hill are not educated themselves. 

She keeps standing up and checking two pots of phuthu (dry pap) and potatoes, starting to smell as if they are burning on the stove. Mseleku is one of two people who cook for the school’s feeding scheme. 

She further says, “Sometimes teachers can’t get hold of a parent when they need to address something concerning that pupil, since some don’t even have a cell phone. Teaching is close to impossible if facilitated by such a person.”  

According to Mseleku, her child, Esihle Mseleku, took time to get back into gear and focus. She says there were times where Esihle did not understand the basic things they had been taught in the first term, when schools resumed. She says at times she felt like her child was bombarded with a lot of school work. 

In June 2021, during a portfolio committee meeting on basic education where the department was giving feedback on the status of school preparedness for a possible third-wave, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga told the committee the department had no control over some of the challenges it was confronted with, because “there are not enough resources”. 

“It would be misleading for the department to say it can roll out tablets to every student overnight or roll out fibre overnight. What the department can do under the circumstances is protect the academic year,” said Motshekga.

Windy Hill Primary School principal. Photo: Mandisa Ntuli

This comes after a prior meeting in May where the committee met to discuss Quarter three performances in basic education. The deputy director general, Simone Geyer, gave a report that, among many challenges faced by the department, one was a more pressing challenge during the hard lockdown in 2020: How universal can “online learning be and the need for issuing devices, considering the lack of infrastructural and technological development in rural areas”. 

She said the department was aware that accessibility to digital resources is limited or non-existent for all poverty-stricken pupils and schools such as Windy Hill Primary. 

Geyer further said, “In a time where service, connectivity and network are key components for sufficient virtual communication, many rural areas do not have a tower to allow service in the area. The department of communications should also assist DBE (the department of basic education) in speeding up structural development and technological advancement in these areas so that untapped potential can be spotted, nurtured and maximised.” 

First-hand experience of the digital divide 

“I realised we were now doing less work than we would normally be doing in school. When I compare my mathematics grade five book from 2019 and my mathematics book from last year, there is a huge difference” 

Grade seven pupil at Windy Hill Primary, Nolwazi Thusi, told Wits Vuvuzela that covid-19 had disturbed her studies greatly. 

“I realised we were now doing less work than we would normally be doing in school. When I compare my mathematics grade five book from 2019 and my mathematics book from last year, there is a huge difference.” She said more than half of her A4 72-page exercise book did not get used in 2020, when she was in grade six and the same happened with the work books.  

“I struggled with learning when the country was under strict lockdown (level five),” said Thusi. There were some concepts she did not understand, since she had not been taught by her teacher. She tried going over what she had been taught in the first term, but she couldn’t teach herself new things. “By the time we went back to school in July, I would be lying if I said I still remembered what I was taught. It had been a long time since I was at school,” she said. 

Thusi said another option was to go and learn with one of her classmates who is also her friend, but because she did not know enough about the pandemic, she was scared to even ask her mother if she could go and work with the friend.  

The Nids-Cram report suggests the ‘‘Covid-19 Learner Support’’ initiative launched in April 2020, which included the broadcasting of content across the three national SABC TV channels and 13 radio stations, catered only for the Further Education and Training phase. Core subjects such as English and mathematics took precedence over other subjects for primary school pupils. 

Content for the foundation and intermediate phase could only be accessed on satellite services. There was an online radio station, CAPS radio, which was broadcasting learning material for seven hours a day. According to the report, “Close to 25% of school-going-aged learners had access to neither a television nor a desktop/laptop computer, and only 8.5% of households with children had access to the internet.” 

Additionally, the teacher at the school told Wits Vuvuzela government’s contingency plan for remote learning did not reach the kids from Windy Hill. She says, “Children from schools such as Windy Hill are not privy to such devices to enhance their education.” 

The teacher further reflected on what she was doing during lockdown. She was very hands-on with helping her nieces, who go to affluent primary schools. She says she felt as if she was going to work because of the workload that school gave their grade three learners. She was also listening in on their lessons. 

“I woke up and sat in the living area with my niece. I wanted to see how these schools manage to pull it off via online learning,” said the teacher, who was amazed at how the children interacted with their teacher virtually, as young as they were.  

Thusi said online learning would have helped her by making sure she did not skip sections she would not normally have to if it were not for covid-19. “I would have learned more than I did. Had I had access to or even knew how to use computers I would have been learning during lockdown,” she said. 



Now is not the time 

Dr Naomi Nkealah, senior lecturer at the Wits School of Education (WSE), told Wits Vuvuzela schools were not prepared for a sudden change to online teaching. Low-quintile schools are particularly disadvantaged in that they suffer from a lack of technological resources. She said the only way these schools would have benefited from technology when covid-19 started was if they had resources in the first place. 

“If the learners in these schools had digital devices through which they could access teaching content uploaded on a learning management system, then it would have been easier for teachers to switch to online teaching and keep teaching going while learners stayed at home. In the absence of these resources, it is hard to imagine that anything different could have happened,” Nkealah said. 

It was still early days to make any claims about remote learning in public schools in South Africa, she added, because universities, with all their technological resources, were still trying to find their way in remote teaching and learning.  

“How much more challenging will it be for public schools with limited resources? If the right structures are in place, it may take a while before South African public schools can think of implementing remote teaching and learning. Issues of availability of technological resources, equal access to these resources, teacher capacitation to use these resources, and considerations of the impact on teachers’ workloads need to be considered before such a plan can take off the ground.” 

Nkealah said there was a lot that the DBE still needed to consider before this became a reality for most South African learners. Some of the things Nkealah said would hinder the introduction of online learning in public schools were the lack of teacher capacitation to use technological resources; and the unavailability of funds to secure user-friendly learning management systems that learners and teachers can work with easily.  

Others are the expensive nature of internet services; internet connectivity issues in rural parts of the country; load-shedding and other power-related crises going on in South Africa; and poverty among learners from low-income families who cannot afford iPads and laptops.   

Thusi said she envied her peers who know how to use various digital devices. She could only imagine how her life would be if remote learning was an option for school children in Windy Hill. 


FEATURED IMAGE: A grade seven class at Windy Hill Primary school writing the final exam for the year. Photo: Mandisa Ntuli