Lenasia, South Africa – When schools were closed during the height of the pandemic in 2020, teachers at Impala Crescent Primary School, like many educators, had to quickly learn how to continue teaching virtually.
“We didn’t do Zoom or anything like that,” said Aziza Mayet, an educator for nearly three decades and head of the foundation phase department at Impala Crescent. “Most of our kids come from a lower-income background, so data and all that was a problem. It was mostly printed lessons.”
Impala Crescent is located in Lenasia, or Lenz, an apartheid-era township designated as Indian and located south of Johannesburg. About 1,000 students attend the public school, many from border towns designated by apartheid as black or ‘coloured’, attracted by the school’s relatively better resources.
Sumayyah Mayat, who teaches sixth grade at Impala Crescent, said she started making videos of herself teaching and then sending them to her students via WhatsApp, a popular text messaging app.
But Mayat ran into the problem Mayet describes: her students’ home Internet connections couldn’t support the files she was trying to send.
“A lot of them said, ‘We don’t have data, so don’t send us big ones [files]”, Mayat said. “But then it became useless because so much data was being used.”
For many students in South Africa, the pandemic further exposed South Africa’s digital divide, with a lack of home computers and internet access hampering students’ ability to participate in distance learning.
In 2020, 7% of South African households with people aged 5 to 24 had internet access at home, according to a 2022 South African government report titled “COVID-19 and Barriers to Participation in education in South Africa, 2020”. About two-thirds of the population rely on work or public Wi-Fi options to connect to the Internet via their phones. That divide deepened between non-white households and those outside major metropolitan areas, the report found.
Faced with these challenges, many South African schools switched students in and out of schools instead of trying distance learning, according to the government report. Nationally, only 11.7% of schools offered distance learning opportunities for students. By comparison, in the US, 93% of households participated in some form of distance learning during the pandemic, according to a 2020 US Census Bureau report.
Maya and her colleagues at Impala Crescent did their best to find solutions to reach their students. They started sending typed messages on WhatsApp rather than files. The challenge this time was student engagement and response.
“Some of them, the work wasn’t done at all,” Mayat said. “Others, there was help [from family members at home], or they may not have done it right. They wouldn’t have understood it that way [the teachers] they wish they did.”
When students were allowed to attend school in person in August 2020, Impala teachers said they spent the remainder of the school year reminding students what it’s like to be in a structured environment. In the current school year, they continue to stay behind the school on their own time to help students fill in the gaps with their learning.
“The majority [the teachers] are doing [the after-school program] out of the goodness of their hearts,” Mayat said. “Helping children is the main goal. Just to help kids get better, get better, so they can reach their goals too.”
Administrators at Impala Crescent are now considering ways to implement digital literacy instruction in the curriculum, from Internet access to creating slide presentations to use online text documents.
But Principal Naazim Adams said it’s important to him that such instruction be intentional and not a flashy curricular addition.
“My philosophy would be that it has to be relevant in context and it has to be based on values,” Adams said. “It has to be meaningful.”
One way Adams is ensuring this is by teaching himself the skills he wants his staff to pass on to their students.
“I’m busy learning digital skills in some digital, which I hope to then carry over to the staff and then everywhere else,” Adams said.
Another key finding from the government’s report on the impact of the pandemic on education in South Africa was about the loss of feeding schemes, or free school meals, that many South African children rely on. In 2020, eight out of 10 pupils aged 5 to 24 relied on their school meal schemes for meals.
Adams said rising levels of food insecurity led Impala Crescent to begin offering free breakfast and lunch to its needy students when they returned to the classroom. While government funding supports one free meal for students each day, Adams said the school decided to offer two.
Nosisa Sithole and Busisiwe Chihkwita start cooking at 7am to prepare for the students. Out of 1,000 students who attend the school, 160 eat breakfast and 400 have conditional lunches.
“But when the ladies cook the tin fish, then they all eat,” Adams said with a smile.
The two chefs, and mother figures to the younger children, said they see the importance of the program.
[The students] wake up in the morning, at five o’clock they are leaving their homes,” said Chihkwita. “They don’t get proper breakfast [at home]. It’s important that they get their food.”
While the pandemic has been difficult for educators and students everywhere, many of the staff at Impala Crescent said they also see it as a shared learning experience that has further bonded the school community.
“At our school, that sense of family that we have, not just in a pandemic, but anytime someone is going through an illness, that support has just made it a school you want to go to,” Mayat said.
Students have felt the support of their teachers not only during times of ‘blocks’, but again now that they are back in the classroom. Seventh-grader Katlego had strong praise for her teachers, even when they weren’t listening.
“They ask us questions, they make us learn,” Katlego said. “We like to answer questions. And if we get it wrong, we learn from it.”
Tshepiso Malakoane, a third-grade teacher at Impala Crescent who began her teaching career during the pandemic, said her students are learning to adjust to classroom routines and return to normality.
“Besides the workload, I see a difference in terms of the kids’ interaction,” Malakoane said. “Since they are able to do physical education, get some air outside, play sports and do activities. Right now, I’m happy with what I’m seeing, I’m seeing a happy generation.”