Is the 2020 School Year Lost?

Let’s face facts, the 2020 school year is lost. So what to do?


By Jonathan Jansen in Times Live 9 April   

 Covid-19 hasn’t caused the schooling crisis, it has just exposed how huge the inequalities in SA education are

I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but the school year is over. This is what the new reality means for your child. Let’s take one step back. The South African school calendar for public schools in 2020 runs from January 15 through December 2, split over four terms. Taking out school and public holidays, this means there is about 198 actual number of school days. Discount days preparing and writing for examinations, and the early release of the “matric” class, and that number reduces sharply to about 150 days.

Enter Covid-19, the code name for the disease caused by infection with the novel coronavirus, and that number is likely to fall sharply to about 100 days – if we are lucky. Now imagine you are in the 80% of disadvantaged schools in the country, and that number (100 days) we know from research would then drop dramatically to about 50 days based simply on routines of dysfunction – teacher absenteeism, non-teaching days even when the teachers are present, and just the general lethargy in most of our public schools.

Covid-19 certainly did not cause this crisis of dysfunction – it exposed it.

The truth is, nobody knows when the schools will reopen. The plan was for teachers to return to school on Monday 20 April and pupils the following day. That plan you can take off the table. If the epidemiologists are correct, we are nowhere near safe in terms of coming out of the high-infection period. Yes, our infection numbers are relatively low as are the number of South Africans dead as a result of the coronavirus, but those numbers are deceptive because they are more likely to reflect the lack of widespread testing across the population than the actual numbers of infected people within the country. That is scary because you can end the lockdown and reopen schools, but then there is the real possibility of a second or third wave of infections that could wreak havoc across communities and especially in the more vulnerable parts of our unequal society.

Covid-19 did not cause inequality – it will reveal it among the poor where comorbidities (diabetes, asthma, tuberculosis) exist and are poorly managed.

In education, the virus will greatly exacerbate the inequality of learning outcomes between the minority privileged and the majority poor. In the middle class schools, teachers have been teaching using Google classrooms, live assemblies are being held using Google Meet, teachers with g-mail accounts have created closed channels on YouTube to deliver instruction, others have deployed Zoom for teaching purposes, and some inventive teachers have even gone to WhatsApp with pupils exchanging photocopied PDF files and photographed images of homework. Nice if you’re privileged, but what this means is that the majority poor now gets left even further behind.

When schools eventually reopen, and nobody knows when that will be, we will probably be found in the final sprint for the Grade 12 pupils as they prepare to write the National Senior Certificate examinations. What is to be done?

  1. Scrap the academic school year; even a “trimmed down” curriculum will soon be meaningless for the school system as a whole.
  2. Pass every pupil in grades 1-11 for organisational reasons (we need to enrol a new Grade 1 class and Grade 8 class without clogging up the system), educational reasons (we can only assess what has been taught and learnt) and equity reasons (we should assess on the basis of opportunity to learn,which was unequally distributed in the lockdown even more than is usually the case).
  3. Abandon all marks from continuous assessment for a simple reason – it was not continuous.
  4. If Grade 12s do write the terminal exams, reach an agreement with provinces and their schools on what parts of the curriculum will be covered and a set new examination papers; there is, incidentally, a precedent from the disruptions of the 1985 school boycotts in places such as the Western Cape.
  5. Negotiate with universities to start three weeks earlier and have matric teachers and lecturers work together on a bridging curriculum for students in particular disciplines, for example, economics for those doing a BCom, or physics and chemistry for those doing a BSc.
  6. Do away with the June and September holidays of 2020 and start school earlier in 2021 for all grades so that in this way academic time lost is made up in other ways. There is no way that curriculum time lost in 2020 can be crammed into the same year.
  7. Provide massive emotional and psychological support for teachers and pupils. There will be weariness and wariness that should not be underestimated. Our biggest mistake would be to treat children as cognitive machines that can simply be switched on again after the trauma of Covid-19.

*I would like to acknowledge the inputs of senior education officials and medical science experts who made valuable inputs into this column. However, I alone take responsibility for the claims and arguments made in the writing.