Lenasia, South Africa — When schools were closed during the height of the 2020 pandemic, 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 lower-income backgrounds, so the data and all that was a problem. These were mainly typed lessons.
Impala Crescent is located in Lenasia or Lenz, an apartheid-era town designated as Indian and located just 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 lessons and then sending them to her students via WhatsApp, a popular text messaging app.
But Mayett ran into the same problem Mayett described: 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 too much data was used.”
For many students in South Africa, the pandemic has further exposed South Africa’s digital divide, with the 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 access to the Internet 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 instead rely on work or public Wi-Fi options to connect to the Internet through their phones. That divide widened among non-white households and those outside major urban areas, the report found.
Faced with these challenges, many South African schools have switched students in and out of school instead of trying distance learning, according to the government report. Nationally, only 11.7% of schools offer distance learning opportunities to 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.
Mayat and her colleagues at Impala Crescent did everything they could 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.
“For some of them, the work isn’t done at all,” Mayatt said. “Others, there was help [from family members at home], or they may not have done it right. They wouldn’t get it that way [the teachers] they would like to do so.”
When students were allowed to attend school in person again in August 2020, Impala teachers said they spent the rest of the school year reminding students what it’s like to be in a structured environment. During the current school year, they continue to stay after school in their spare time to help students fill in the gaps in their learning.
“More than [the teachers] they do [the after-school program] out of the goodness of their own heart,” Mayatt said. “To help children, that’s the main goal. Just to help the kids get better, improve themselves so they can reach their goals as well.”
Impala Crescent administrators are now considering ways to implement digital literacy instruction into the curriculum, from Internet access to creating slide-share presentations to using online text documents.
But Principal Naazim Adams said it was important to him that such instruction be intentional and not a shiny addition to the curriculum.
“My philosophy would be that it has to be contextually relevant and it has to be values-based,” Adams said. “It has to make sense.”
One way Adams ensures this is by training himself in the skills he wants his staff to pass on to their students.
“I’m busy learning some digital skills that I hope to then pass on first 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 the loss of meal schemes, or free school meals, that many South African children rely on. In 2020, eight out of 10 students aged 5 to 24 relied on school meal schemes for meals.
Adams said rising levels of food insecurity led Impala Crescent to begin providing free breakfast and lunch to its students in need when they return to the classroom. While state funds support one free meal to 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. Of the 1,000 students who attend the school, 160 have breakfast and 400 have lunch provided.
“But when the ladies cook the tinned fish, that’s when everybody eats,” Adams said with a smile.
The two cooks and mothers of younger children said they see the importance of the program.
[The students] they wake up in the morning, at five o’clock they leave their houses,” said Chihkvita. “They don’t get the proper breakfast [at home]. It is important for them to get their food.”
While the pandemic has been difficult for educators and students everywhere, many staff at Impala Crescent said they also see it as a shared learning experience that has further brought the school community together.
“At our school, the sense of family that we have, not only during the pandemic, but anytime someone gets sick, that support has just made it a school you want to go to,” Mayatt said.
Students have felt the support of their teachers not only during the “lockdown” but again now that they are back in the classrooms. Seventh grader, Katlego, loudly praised her teachers even when they couldn’t hear them.
“They ask us questions, they make us learn,” Katlego said. “We like to answer questions. And if we make mistakes, we learn from them.
Tsepiso Malacoane, 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 get back to normal.
“Besides the workload, I see a change in terms of the interaction between the kids,” Malacoane said. “Because they can do physical education, get some air outside, play sports and do activities. Right now I’m happy with what I see, I see a happy generation.”