When learners return to school, teachers and the school management team (SMT) are facing a very difficult task: to pull their communities together while helping their learners get back on track. Some learners may have lost family members to the disease caused by the coronavirus, and some schools may have lost their staff members. A lot of schools in poor areas cannot even attempt online teaching and learning, so learners have obviously lost some academic ground as a result of school closures.
So what can schools and the Department of Education do?
There are no easy answers. But research offers a number of concrete ideas for helping learners respond, from changing how the next school year is structured to making sure learners have access to mental health professionals. Most private schools can pull off some of these ideas on their own. Others (No-Fee Paying Public Schools) will highly depend on the Department of Education to allocate extra money, which is a big ask during this pandemic.
We need to understand that implementing these ideas for lost time in teaching and learning does not come cheap.
Here are some ideas that schools and the Department of Education might consider
- Extending the school day or school year
Maybe the most obvious way to help learners make up for months of missed school is simple: give them more time, with an extended school year or longer school days.
Research offers reasons for optimism. When the Western Cape Department of Education required that poor performing schools extend their school days, research found that learners reading scores increased as a result. Another study found that sending struggling learners to study camps after grade 10 decreased their chances of dropping out of high school. And learners generally learn continuously while school is in session and they relapse when it’s not. We believe that the more learners receive instruction, the better they do.
An extended school year could also give learners with disabilities more time to make up lost services, and give schools more time to figure out whether their needs have changed. If, for example, a learner never received speech therapy for about two months, it’s not like the therapist can start the school year and just jump right in two months of speech therapy in a month’s time. The therapist might be able to offer extra hours or weekend services, but it’s obviously going to be a long, slower progress. And of course, however it’s planned and structured, more time means higher costs.
- Provide extra lessons, especially for learners who are most behind.
Another way to help our learners catch up is to make sure that learners who are behind get tutoring in small groups. The Department of Education should consider funding an army of tutors to enter schools on a very large scale. This could have a secondary benefit of providing jobs for unemployed teachers in South Africa struggling to find work in a damaged economy. Again cost is a very big problem. Even when tutors are paid modest stipends, having such a small learner-to-teacher ratio is extremely pricey. Tutoring presents a great opportunity to have a win-win for the economy and for the learners.
- ‘Loop’ primary school teachers with the same group of learners
What if when primary school learners return to school they are greeted by a familiar face — their prior year’s teacher? This practice – known as looping, in which a teacher follows a group of learners to the next grade – might make sense when learners return to school. It could provide a degree of emotional security for the learners who haven’t been in school for months and make it easier for teachers to help them catch up.
The benefit of this is that those teachers would know immediately where the learners in the classroom were, at least when they left the classroom. Research shows that looping does in fact help learners learn more in the following grades, and in general, learners benefit from having more “familiar faces”, including classmates, around them in class. The advantage of this idea is that it costs little or nothing at all.
Still, this idea comes with its own challenges. If grade 1 teachers loop with their learners, schools must figure out who will teach the entering grade 1’s. Teachers in pre-school (Grade R teachers) may not be so enthusiastic about this idea since grade R is the highest grade in pre-school and may not have a class to loop with. There is also research showing that teachers benefit from consistency that comes with teaching in the same grade.
- Hire professionals who can help learners with trauma and mental health needs
Learners are out of school for a reason: a pandemic that could have caused their parents to lose their jobs or they have lost their relatives to the disease. Nearly all learners are likely to have experienced some stress from the disruption of their daily routines. In general, access to social workers and school based health clinics can help our learners alleviate their stresses and could play a very important role in the adjustment period as learners return to school.
Before any major learning can take place, schools need to think very carefully about how they lay the foundation for supportive and a caring climate. Teachers cannot just bombard the learners with school work immediately when they return to school. This period requires a ‘school needs assessment’ to identify what learners and teachers are coping with, with the SMT mapping out their own health staff’s capacity and whether they could add support from community based providers and school readiness programmes.
SA public schools need now, more than ever, social workers, school psychologists, and nurses that could teach classes of small groups of learners, or parents on how to cope with stress and anxiety, in addition to working with individual learners most in need of support. During this crisis period, schools without these professionals due to budget allocation will be in tougher positions.
These professionals may also be key in helping to decide how to handle changes in learner behavior or academic abilities, and making sure schools are not over-identifying learners with behavioral or learning disabilities when they may just be responding to stress. When the learners return to school, the behaviors that teachers will be seeing in the immediate short term may or may not be typical for them as they move forward a couple of months into the school year.
- Integrate corona-virus into the Curriculum
Another way the Department of Education should try to help learners when they return to school is to integrate virus-related content into the school curriculum. For example:
- Social Science lessons can examine the current social inequalities by examining some communities which are affected by COVID-19 more than others.
- English classes can include creative writing about the hidden costs of the pandemic on learner’s lives.
- Science classes can examine the ecological determinants of infectious diseases.
Of course, teachers would have to think about how to design content that is grade-appropriate, and creating new lesson plans might be very challenging when teachers are dealing with so many other changes.
But addressing the pandemic head-on could help our learners make sense of what is happening in the world and also have academic benefits. We believe that learners can do well in school when the curriculum is connected to their personal experiences. Sometimes adults are reluctant to talk about scary events to their children because they don’t want to make their children feel bad. But asking children to talk about their experiences is a good idea. As adults, we need to model, to the extent that we can, a healthy response to this significant stress that everybody has experienced.
Now it’s your turn. What other ideas can you think of that can help our learners catch up and readjust as they return to school? Let me know in the comments below.