Elementary students and teachers overcome pandemic technology hurdles – The Hawk Newspaper

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 the data and all that was a problem. It was mostly written lessons.”

Impala Crescent is located in Lenasia, or Lenz, an apartheid-era Indian-designated township located south of Johannesburg. About 1,000 students attend the public school, many from the bordering townships 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 Mayat ran into the same problem Mayet described: His students’ home Internet connections couldn’t handle the files he 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 didn’t work because too 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 engage in remote 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, on the other hand, rely on public or work Wi-Fi options to connect to the Internet using 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 rotated 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 options to students. By comparison, in the United States, 93 percent of households participated in some form of distance learning during the pandemic, according to a 2020 U.S. Census Bureau report.

Mayat and her colleagues at Impala Crescent went out of their way to find solutions to reach their students. They started sending text messages on WhatsApp instead of files. The challenge this time was student participation and response.

“Some of them, the work wasn’t done at all,” Mayat said. “Others, there was help [from family members at home], or maybe they didn’t do it correctly. They wouldn’t have understood it that way [the teachers] they would have liked it.”

When students were able to attend in-person school 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. Well into the current school year, they continue to stay after school on their own time to help students fill in the gaps with their learning.

“Most of the [the teachers] they are doing [the after-school program] out of the goodness of his own heart,” Mayat said. “Helping the kids is the main goal. Just to help the kids get better, get better, so they can reach their goals as well.”

Administrators at Impala Crescent are looking at ways to implement digital literacy instruction into the curriculum, from Internet access to creating shared presentations to using online text documents.

But Principal Naazim Adams said it’s important to him that this instruction be intentional rather than a flashy curricular add-on.

“My philosophy would be that it has to be contextually relevant and it has to be values-based,” Adams said. “It has to be meaningful.”

Naazim Adam, principal of Impala Crescent Primary School, describes the resources available in the school library. PHOTO: ELISE WELSH ’22

One of the ways Adams makes sure is by teaching himself the skills he wants his staff to pass on to their students.

“I’m busy learning digital skills to some digital skills, which I hope to transfer first to staff and then to anywhere else,” Adams said.

Another key finding of the government’s report on the impact of the pandemic on education in South Africa was about the loss of feeding programs or free school meals that many South African children depend on. In 2020, eight out of 10 students between the ages of 5 and 24 relied on their school’s food programs for meals.

Adams said rising rates of food insecurity prompted Impala Crescent to begin offering free breakfast and lunch to its students who needed it when they returned to the classroom. Although government funds support one free meal for students each day, Adams said the school decided to provide two.

Nosisa Sithole and Busisiwe Chihkwita start cooking at 7am to prepare the students. Of the 1,000 students who attend the school, 160 eat breakfast and 400 eat the provided lunches.

Nosisa Sithole and Busisiwe Chihkwita, cooks at Impala Crescent Primary, serve a hot meal during lunch break. PHOTO: ELISE WELSH ’22

“But when the women cook the canned fish, then they all eat it,” Adams said with a smile.

The two cooks, and mother figures to the little ones, said they see the importance of the program.

[The students] wake up in the morning, at five o’clock they leave the house,” Chihkwita said. “They don’t get proper breakfast [at home]. It’s important that they get their food.”

A student receives a plate of samp (maize) and beans from the cook, Aunt Busi, at lunchtime. PHOTO: ELISE WELSH ’22

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 brought the school community even closer together.

“At our school, that sense of family that we have, not just in the pandemic, but any time someone is dealing with an illness, that support just makes it a school you want to go to,” Mayat said.

Students have felt the support of their teachers not only during the times of “lockdown”, but again now that they are back in the classrooms. Seventh-grader Katlego praised her teachers, even when they weren’t around.

“They ask us questions, they make us learn,” Katlego said. “We love answering questions. And if we make mistakes, we learn from them.”

Tshepiso Malakoane, a third-grade teacher at Impala Crescent who began her teaching career during the pandemic, said her students are learning to adapt to classroom routines and return to normality.

“In addition to the workload, I see a change in terms of the kids’ interaction,” Malakoane said. “Because they are able to do physical education, take air outside, do sports and do the activities. Right now, I’m happy with what I’m seeing, I’m seeing a happy generation.”

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