Primary school teachers at government schools in Benoni and Actonville, Gauteng,have gone beyond the call of dutyto ensurethe class of 2020 have been protected, educated and well-nourisheddespite the threats of the covid-19 pandemic.
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 isnotdifficult to understand from where the school derives its name and crest:Strong and sturdy oak, elm and ash treesline the perimeter of the lush grounds.
Like the nurturing trees, Arbor’s teachers alsostand tall and strongas they welcome their arriving learnersas if they areprecious seeds of afuturerooted in the grounds of the school.
Thepupils, of grades one to seven,with vividly coloured masks covering their noses, mouths and cheeks,sit metres apart from each other, each in a 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,takingeachstudent’s temperature and askingimportant 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 gunposes a profound questionBalle says she will never forget:“Ma’am, you always ask us all these questions, but why don’tyou ever ask us if we sleep at night?”
The mental and emotional wellbeing of students
Balle tellsWits Vuvuzela that this startling question madeherand other teachers worry that students might besuffering symptoms of depression,due to the effects of the covid-19 lockdown.
An article in health publicationSpotlight,published in April this year, served 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 thereforeunderstands the severityof the pandemic better than most.
Anticipating the impact lockdown would have on her pupils, Moodleycreated a ‘’covidsurvey’’ which was distributed to every student. The survey askedquestions 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.
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 programme. Grade 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 stressare notexclusive to lower–income schools in Actonville.Just to the north,Arbor Primaryhas taken steps to address the trauma experienced by its learners due tothe 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 minister by the name of Basil Panayi to de-brief the children and staff, as well as a psychologist whoworks throughthe students’ emotions and feelings regarding the lockdown,” he said.
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 girl, 13-year-old ShadaeFigueira-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 manyteachers and pupils, the 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 groupsand created Google Classroom programmesto relay vital information to itsstudents. Through these platforms, the teachers worked tirelessly to put togethercourse content from scratch.
Arbor’sdeputy 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 everyonethough,sincedigital divide statistics in South Africa are high.According tobroadband companyCable, 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 provideany public primary school with data stipends toaccommodate online learning practices during the lockdown.
This was disappointing forArbor Primary grade four English teacher and head of department Colleen Liebenberg,who saysteaching has now become an expense out of her own pocket.
“Many students and staff battled with access to dataas 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 Primary students attending class in the school hall. Photo: Niall Higgins.
The creation of “lockdown packs”
Actonville Primary was hit hard by similardata and financialimplications. Despite it beinga proud and dedicated school,many of its students cannot afford internet access or smart devices, due to poverty and socio-economic challenges. The school’s1356 studentsbattletoeven affordthe school fee of R1100 a year.
Despite these disadvantages,Actonvilleeducatorsrose to the occasion wholeheartedlyand began to createcustomised workbooks for theirlearners.
“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.”
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 workbookswas necessary but notcheap 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.”
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 offormal schoolingwere lost due to the lockdown. In response, government schools applied‘curriculum trimming’ as part of their recovery plan by cuttingthe academicsyllabusdown 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 haveany schooling at all during the lockdown, and thereforehave 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.
Varyingclass schedules also led to difficulties in creating and implementing teaching plans. Some children came in on a bi-weekly basis, whereas some stayedhome. This meant teachers had to teach both formally at schooland by distancefor online students.
“We essentially had two jobs,” says Arbor’sLiebenberg.“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 smallarea containsbuckets 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 aheavy 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 manychildren 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 dailyand maintainthese food gardens to keep our children well-nourished,” she says.
According to aStatsSA report posted in July, more than 62.1%, or six out of 10South African children between birth and age 17 lackthe funds fordaily meals.
The DBE normally contributes to food security through the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) by providing meals tomore than nine millionlearners a year.During the lockdown, however, this service came to a halt, leavingmany students hungry.
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. “We went and delivered groceries to familiespersonallyduring lockdown,’’ she says. ‘‘What 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‘adopt–a–child’ scheme by assigning teachers to select and feed students in need,” saysArentson. “Suddenly our teachers began ‘adopting’ more and more children, andthey supplied lunches every single day.”
At Actonville Primary too, learnersexperienced the difference and joy one extra meal could bring to their everyday lives. “In the covid lockdownit’s a struggling time,’’ says grade seven pupil Enock Mateke. ‘‘There wasn’t enough to eat for everyone at school, butnow we get nice food packages that we take home, so no–one is hungry.”
“There is no way you can teach a child with an empty stomach.”
With justified pride, Actonville deputy head girlMicayla Pillay says,“Us grade sevens grew the food garden all by ourselves. We need energy to study, and the fruit we get everyday 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 seedlings are returned to their guardians by caring‘‘gardeners’’who toil long after their stipulated working hours,tired butunbroken.
Onecannot 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
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 – andin 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 submissionsevery 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 articlepublished 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 Vuvuzelathat 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 online, at 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.”
“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“
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 anddesigned 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 needhelp.
The teachers at SPARK schools are able to use the programme at their own discretion and do not have to disclose its use tothe school, confirmed SPARK Theresa Park assistant principal, Tshegofatso Diale.
Motsoaledi said she had found alternative ways of dealing with her mental health instead of usingthe 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 addedpositively.
Protecting themselves and their loved ones
Mental health struggleshave 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 balancethe 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.
Shesaidshe 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 theplayground.
Before the teachers of Vuleka St Marksreturned to school,they faced another 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 onlyan 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 didnot get any information for about two months,” explained Lang.
As soon as she was allowed to go back to the school, Lang 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 school in 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 we [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 theminds 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 herclassroom.
“Theyhave 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 portraits, said 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, theseservices 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 havethrown a spanner in the works for foundation phase teachers, but most of them agree this is just the new normal. Andwhether it is dealing with their own mental wellbeing, the physical and emotional safety of their learners or facing issues ofdigital access, the unexpected challenges these teachers have faced have onlybetter 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.
So it looks like Limpopo might produce a whole generation of Malemas. Education is the key to success but these northern youngsters aren’t exactly experiencing the “better life for all”.
The textbook saga is just another example of the ANC’s failure to curb corruption and mismanagement. But are voters finally going to ask: “What about the kids … what about my kids?”
Voting for the ANC in 1994 was certainly no mistake. Voting for them ever since, out of loyalty, fear, hope or whatever other reason, might’ve been a bad idea. Unemployed youth are angry and from these hopeless masses rise the likes of Julius Malema. Whether he still stands for that crowd or just stands to profit from their desperation is debatable. But he represents where it all went wrong – trying to fix things that may not be broken and further breaking things that need fixing. Case in point: education.
In a radio interview this week president Zuma insisted that education is a top priority as it receives a hefty portion of the budget. But one can’t help question why things are so bad in the Eastern Cape and Limpopo if that were true. Perhaps the wrong aspects within education are being prioritised.
It seems the ANC-led government may be trying to fix the problem from the top down. BEE, possible lower university entrance requirements, alleged inflated matric results … why not make just a slightly better effort at improving primary and high school education? Delivery of textbooks is such a basic process, how could it possibly have gone this wrong? Why not pay teachers, arguably the most important members of our society, a better salary? If you are a teacher in the Eastern Cape you might appreciate being paid at all.
The ANC-led government is giving our children a slap in the face. Yet parents and young adults keep voting for the party. Is that not a slap in the face to everyone who is trying their hardest to get ahead? Minister Angie Motshekga’s defence of her actions, or lack thereof, is offensive to say the least.
The Ethics Institute of SA should be supported for saying this week that officials should take responsibility for this debacle. An emotional observer might go further and say that Minister Motshekga is a disgrace to women who lead and a disgrace to what the ANC once was.
But forget about her. Just think of all the opportunities school children in Limpopo and the Eastern Cape will miss out on. Malema is right about one thing: the gap between rich and poor is widening. But neither he nor the current government has the solution.
The money is there, we just need the corruption and mismanagement to stop. For our children’s sake.
This week’s protest march by Wits academic and support staff was the result of months of frustration following failed wage negotiations according to union representatives.
Academics and support staff have called for an end to what they say has become a deadlock in annual negotiations. The university has rejected their demands on pay, governance and conditions of service.
Vuvuzela has reported on increased hostility in the negotiations between the Academic Staff Association (ASAWU) and vice chancellor Loyiso Nongxa.
The academics are demanding a 9% salary increase for support staff, the establishment of a childcare facility for Wits employees and an end to overselling parking permits in non-designated parking areas, among other things.
In a statement released on July 10, Nongxa said he recognised the unions’ right to protest, as long as it did not interfere with the rights of students and other members of the Wits community to access services on campus.
Last month roughly 150 academics and staff picketed outside the entrance of the basement parking in Senate House. Some staff members told Vuvuzela they earn as little as R20 000 a year, despite working at Wits for more than 20 years.
During the negotiations in June, the university said it would cost around R60-million to implement the increase demanded.
The unions are expected to march again on August 2.
The protest action is supported by the Members of the Administration, the Library and Technical Staff Association, the Academic Staff Association of Wits University and the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union.
– a 9% salary increase for support staff, to be paid at a higher scale at the 75th percentile of the tertiary education sector benchmark
– decent salaries to be given before performance regulations were initiated;
– a resolution of the dispute on shift allowances
– an agreement on sliding scales to advance equity
– the establishment of a childcare facility for Wits employees
– an end to overselling of parking permits in non-designated parking areas;
– an increase in individual research incentives
On this podcast episode, current female learners and students describe what they can remember being taught about Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) and how they translate that into their lived experiences as young adults. Parents also offer their understanding and perspectives on the purpose of CSE. This podcast episode is a part of the 2021 in-depth […]