Pragmatic approach to a return to school

To go back to school or not to go back to school — that is the question.

Lots of debates on when centres of learning will reopen their doors for pupils have been going on since the president declared the national lockdown in March.

Confusion has reigned with some suggestions that schools were meant to have been opened as early as this week.

Parents and teachers alike have voiced their concerns, with some equating reopening of schools to sending children to slaughterhouses.

In her eagerly awaited address on April 30, basic education minister Angie Motshekga clarified that the phased-in approach to the resumption of schooling will be followed, with the Grade 7 and Grade 12 pupils returning to school first on June 1, on condition that the schools are safe and Covid-19 compliant.

Compliance means that schools would have adequate water supply, functional toilets and proper sanitation, and regular health screening.

The current plan will see pupils and school staff wearing masks throughout the school day, and being screened and tested for Covid-19 on site.

Frequent handwashing and sanitising is compulsory, particularly when entering and leaving classrooms, toilets, feeding rooms, and the school premises.

The department has committed to work with the department of transport to ensure scholar transport is sanitised before each trip.

The measures go further to say that there will not be more than 40 pupils in a classroom at one time, and no more than two pupils will share a desk.

No sports or mass gatherings will be allowed, and movements of pupils between classes will be restricted.

In the plan, the department also committed to provide psychosocial and mental health support to schools, making use of their own resources, as well as assistance from the department of social development.

Try to imagine a Grade 7 pupil from Mdantsane preparing for his first day back at school since the outbreak of Covid-19.

He relies on public transport to get to his school in East London CBD.

He puts on his compulsory cloth mask and joins the other children from his community in the minibus.

There is nervousness and great excitement of seeing friends after such an extended period of time, and there will undoubtedly be chatting, laughing, and joking as the pupils ease into the comfort of their surroundings.

Have they stopped to think and check: are they sitting far enough apart, have they adequately sanitised, is their face mask still on and are they keeping their hands away from their mouths and faces?

Finally he arrives at his school.

What was once a bustling, energetic space filled with children’s laughter and chattering, is now eerily quiet and clinical.

The smell of disinfectant replaces the familiar sweet and spicy aromas of early morning chips and suckers, and a stern reminder about social distancing echoes across the schoolgrounds as he instinctively reaches to shake the hand of a friend he has not seen in months.

At the piercing sound of the school bell, the masked teachers descend upon the classrooms, only their eyes visible and learning starts in the “new normal”.

For the next eight hours, teachers and pupils remain masked and vigilant  while attempting to connect and communicate, and ultimately collaborate in ensuring that learning takes place.

Is this a realistic expectation? Can we expect young people to keep a mask on for the entire day, not to touch their face or mouth, not to touch one another, not to share food or stationery?

Can we expect a teacher to monitor and control the safety of 40 pupils, as well as themselves?

In addition to this, are our pupils being emotionally contained and regulated in this new unfamiliar space?  

Thorough preparation and planning is going to be vital during the upcoming weeks.

School safety plans and policies will need to be revised and carefully implemented to ensure that realistic expectations are placed on the pupils,  as well as their teachers before their return in June.

By following a phased-in approach, the DBE believes the virus will be better contained by having fewer pupils on the schoolgrounds.

Following this logic, more classrooms should be available, so it should not be necessary for 40 pupils to be crammed together into one space.

Having fewer pupils in the classroom allows for desks to be spaced out properly and for social distancing regulations to be met.

This will assist in preventing the spread of the virus, particularly in the event that pupils find it difficult to keep their masks on for extended periods of time.

If practised through a trauma-sensitive lens, it is my hope that departmental psychosocial services and a Covid-19 orientation programme will be enough to support the teachers and pupils in adapting to this “new normal”, and to help them to regulate emotionally to access higher order reasoning and executive functioning.

This takes care of Grades 12 and 7, who are already largely independent pupils able to regulate and access information with guidance and support.

But what about the pupils in the other grades?

What about the pupils waiting to return to school?

We are aware that pupils in the townships and socioeconomically disadvantaged communities have had very little access to online/digital learning platforms during the two-month lockdown period.

This is as a result of various factors such as limited data, limited resources and equipment, trauma and survival, and a lack of skill and knowledge in this new modality of learning.

The department has put an initiative in place to bring curriculum lessons to households as an intervention across the country to assist pupils as schools remain closed.

It has used 123 radio stations (national and community stations), and six different TV channels with a total reach of more than 35 million people.

All these efforts are in a bid to minimise the effect of the pandemic on basic education.

This is a highly commendable initiative, and one that will certainly have a great reach.

It does not, however, take into consideration the initial “buy in” and sensitisation that is required from parents and caregivers, as well as the pupils themselves.

We need our communities to understand and appreciate the importance of continuous independent learning, as well as remote facilitation and support via online digital platforms.

So how do we ensure these children do not lose more time?

How can we see to it that these children have access to learning, safety and containment during the upcoming phased-in approach? 

Perhaps we need to reimagine our schools, particularly our public schools, as community centres.

Centres for learning, training, support and community development: Perhaps it is our parents and caregivers who should be attending these community centres (schools), where schoolwork can be collected and explained, dropped off and marked.

Centres where training can be provided for parents, caregivers and homeschool teachers on topics such as accessing remote learning using digital and online platforms, behaviour management strategies, emotional regulation techniques, health and nutrition information, safety and self-care practices.

Health checks including screening and testing for Covid-19 can be done on site at these community centres (schools). 

Schools and various NGOs can provide their services on-site to the school community on allocated days and times.

The library and computer lab can be used for the purposes of providing training to parents/caregivers, as well as for research purposes for pupils in secondary and high school.

Classrooms as remedial and resource rooms: Teachers can redesign their classroom space to function as a remedial room, where extra lessons can be offered to a maximum of 15 pupils at a time.

These lessons can be divided into a morning and afternoon sessions to accommodate more pupils,  and can take place on certain days within an allocated time frame. For example, on a Monday and Wednesday from 9am until 12pm, and from 1pm until 4pm.

Parents will need to ensure their children have transport, and that safety regulations are followed.

Classroom safety regulations such as social distancing, face masks and hand sanitising will also need to be implemented and monitored by the classroom teacher.

The classroom space can also function as a resource room. Caregivers and pupils should be able to collect their work in hard copy, which has been prepared ahead of time by their teacher. This can be in the form of a worksheet, assignment, project, or task.

This work should also be made available digitally for those who feel comfortable with this modality and who have been trained to make use of digital/online platforms.

Certainly, the more training that is provided, the more independent our community members will become, and the less they will need to travel to the community centres.

The same applies to learning support and strategies. The classroom should also be used as a place of training and support for caregivers with regard to learning and teaching strategies – particularly in the foundation phase.

Face-to-face sessions should be offered where basic reading, writing and mathematics concepts and strategies are explained to caregivers, so that they are equipped to assist their children with the schoolwork at home.

These sessions should also be offered on certain days and at allocated times, in accordance with health and safety regulations.

Again, once appropriate training is provided, these sessions can take place online via Zoom or Google Teams.

The goal here is to empower our community members, and to equip them with the tools needed to instil a community-wide culture and practise of collaborative  teaching and learning.

The department  has assured the public that safety and hygiene measures will be strictly implemented and adhered to before reopening schools and phasing in the grades.

But I can’t help wondering: do we feel united in this approach?

Do we feel heard, and/or seen behind our masks?

And do we feel prepared, empowered and equipped for the resumption of schooling in SA post Covid-19? Well your guess is as good as mine.